How PTAs have changed in the pandemic

We asked PTAs what had changed for them since the start of the pandemic. Here, we reveal what they've tried, what they like and what they can't wait to drop

See this article as it appeared in the autumn 2021 issue of PTA+ magazine

Charlotte Morris says good night to her children and five minutes later she’s on Zoom, planning a trail with other members of the PTA at Newbridge Primary School, Bath. The PTA has posted a call for entries on Facebook and will publicise the event through its social channels. Parents will be able to download trail maps from the school’s website and donate to the PTA using a QR code. On the refreshments stall, tea and cake will be paid for using contactless payments. But the PTA isn’t doing it this way because of lockdown restrictions – things have changed and they aren’t going back.

‘When we held our scarecrow trail in July, lockdown forced us to do things differently,’ says Morris. ‘But a lot of it works well. We’ll never put another flyer in a book bag, and we’d be lost without Google forms. Social media has become the preferred way for the PTA to communicate – it’s efficient for us and parents find it easier too.’

More than 94% of PTAs we spoke to told us the pandemic affected the way they operated, and an overwhelming majority agreed some change was for the better. Only 3% thought everything would return to how it was before.

As with so many tales of human interaction, the trend is towards digital. Since March 2020, more than 80% of our respondents have begun holding meetings or communicating with supporters online, over 85% have undertaken new digital fundraising and more than half have held a new online event.

We can adapt and hold successful events

Before 2020, big events were the lifeblood of most PTAs, with Christmas and summer fairs the mainstay of fundraising. At the start of the pandemic, events were mostly geared towards community support, but more recently we’ve seen PTAs adding a fundraising element to help top up dwindling bank balances and fund requests for extra resources and outdoor play equipment.

According to our survey, the most popular new events were virtual and pupil-only events with almost two-thirds of PTAs having held one or both. Workshops, wine tastings and quizzes were popular choices for online events while class-only discos and film afternoons proved relatively easy to hold in bubbles at school. Outdoor family events such as trails and treasure hunts received good feedback and every PTA who had held one would do so again, suggesting it’s fun for participants and a viable fundraiser.

‘We actually find parents donate more with the QR code than they did when we sold physical trail maps,’ says Charlotte Morris. ‘With so many families in difficulties, it seems more inclusive to ask those who can to give, but to make the event available to everyone.’

With uncertainty over what might happen during the winter, events that can easily move online or be held outside are looking popular again this year. But don’t pack away the bunting just yet – PTAs we spoke to listed fairs and discos as the events they are most looking forward to holding when large events return.

Online meetings fit in with busy lives

Our results reveal some interesting trends about the future of meetings. We may have joined the PTA to avoid the children’s bedtime routine, but there’s not always enough time in the day to meet up. Over 80% of PTAs have held a meeting online since the start of the pandemic and almost half of them expect to continue at least some of the time even if there are no social restrictions.

Online meetings make the PTA more efficient and save time, says Melanie Da Costa of St Anne’s PTA, Banstead, Surrey. ‘All our PTA meetings are now on Zoom, meaning an hour-long meeting is just that – it doesn’t take up the whole evening. Last year’s online AGM was the best attended we’ve ever had, and we also meet with the headteacher online once a term, which works incredibly well for everyone.’

At the beginning, meeting on Zoom was about making the best of a bad situation,’ says Charlotte Morris. ‘But we had a fundraising plan, and we were committed to it – we couldn’t just walk off into the darkness.’ As time went by, we could see there were benefits: some parents had never been able to make meetings because of childcare issues or timings. Now we can be more flexible. We won’t hold every meeting on Zoom because we’d miss getting together over a glass of wine, but we will use it when we need to get people together at short notice.’

Digital fundraising is here to stay

PTAs engaging with digital fundraising are reaping the rewards. More than a third of you have set up an online donation platform since the start of the pandemic and if your PTA hasn’t, but is thinking about it, you’re in good company – a further 20% have it under consideration. Although most PTAs are still accepting cash payments, a small but significant 14% told us they expect to be completely online from now on.

‘It’s the biggest change we’ve made,’ says Melanie DaCosta. ‘Christmas cards, raffle ticket payments and all other transactions will be digital from now on. Before the pandemic, people used to put money in an envelope in the PTA mailbox, but online payments are much easier for the PTA to deal with, so we’ve really pushed it. Class reps are responsible for collecting mufti day money (also online) and we’ve raised more than ever before. We’ve found people tend to give more when it’s online. The majority of our parents are really happy because it means they don’t have to remember cash and what they give outweighs anything we may have lost.’

Flyers in book bags are yesterday’s news

Another trend that’s been accelerated by concerns around social distancing, it looks as if the humble flyer’s days are numbered. Two thirds of PTAs we spoke to aren’t printing flyers at the moment, and only a third say they ever will again. ‘Those days are gone,’ says Melanie DaCosta. ‘Now, we email everyone through the school’s ParentMail system. We don’t have to spend ages printing, and it makes sense from an environmental perspective too.’

We’re over the bun fight for second-hand uniform

It’s no fun when your nose is in someone’s sweaty armpit trying to grab an age 5-6 polo shirt at the uniform sale. Our survey found that almost 60% of PTAs had started selling uniform online instead of holding traditional table-top sales and it’s proving easier for organisers and parents alike.

Rachel Khan, chair at Friends of Culvers House Primary School started taking online requests for uniform when playground sales were suspended. ‘We take requests – not orders – via a Google form on our website and I sort it all on Fridays. Items are bagged, and go home with children after the weekend. Parents receive an email informing them what we had and giving our bank details for if they want to keep things. If they don’t, they drop them back into our Friday morning donation box outside the school office. Donations are shut in the box after drop off on Friday and I sort them the following week. If a parent can’t do a bank transfer, we’ll send an online invoice so they can pay by card. Sales are booming and it’s far less chaotic for me.’

What does the future hold?

The way PTAs interact with parents, members and schools has been permanently transformed. Having taken the plunge, adaptable PTAs understand how they can use the new methods to best serve their schools. Although 83% of PTAs we spoke to have raised less than usual since the start of the pandemic, very few have stopped altogether and the trend is towards fundraising once more. On our PTA+ Facebook group, resilient PTAs are discussing fundraising targets and wishlists, and asking how they can extend their supporter base. Whatever the autumn term brings, it’s clear that hardworking PTAs are finding creative ways to blend the new with the old, ready to face the challenges this year will bring.

At Newbridge Primary School, Charlotte Morris is hoping a planned fair will go ahead this term. ‘We’ve managed to get by so far and to meet our ongoing funding expectations. But we have a five-year plan to raise funds for bigger projects and we’re hoping to rely partly on events to achieve that. So far, if we’ve encountered something we can’t do face to face, we’ve asked ourselves: how can we still do this, but in a new way? We didn’t have a choice – we’ve had to adapt to survive.’