From fire and tornado drills, to emergency evacuation plans and lockdown protocols, schools take a number of preventive measures to keep students safe. Yet most institutions – both educational and otherwise – found themselves completely unprepared for this global pandemic.
Managing school communications during the COVID-19 outbreak has been an exercise in reactivity, rather than proactivity, and some schools have done better than others. Many lessons have been learned in recent months, and no doubt we can all learn from each other as this may not be the last time school shut downs occur. We now know that shutdowns of this scale are possible, and it’s our responsibility to prepare for them.
Since there've been lessons, let's grade ourselves and do an exercise in reflective learning and self evaluation.
Grading your school communications during the pandemic
There are several key areas of school communications that were vital during this pandemic. Take a look below, and grade your performance. How did your school do, or better yet, how are you doing? After all, one thing we all have learned for sure is that educating and communicating during the pandemic is a work in progress for us all.
Category 1: Urgent news delivery
During the initial shutdown, the responsiveness and reliability of your school communications with parents, students, teachers and staff was put to the ultimate test. How quickly were you able to get out the word about closure? What methods did you use: homepage alerts, emails and social media? Was it easy to set these up and send them out, or did it take multiple people, hours of work, and an abundance of trial-and-error?
Beyond the initial closure announcements, it’s important to consider how well you communicated with staff and student families as the pandemic played out. Even as the pandemic became our “new normal,” your communications were still considered urgent – things were changing daily. Did you provide a reliable, updated resource on your homepage or social media profiles that parents trusted and found useful? This might be a good opportunity to survey parents about their experience with your school communications during the shut-down.
Communication about reopening procedures is a more recent example of your urgent news delivery performance. Reopening came with new procedures and protocols – how well were these communicated to staff and families? One way to grade your communications performance is by looking at how smoothly these new protocols went in the first days and weeks of reopening. Some photos of school reopenings showed students packed into hallways. If students and staff seemed clueless and confused about the new protocols, or failed to implement them completely, then perhaps you’re looking at a C- rather than an A+ in this category.
Category 2: Remote learning tools and accessibility
How did your school perform when it came to communicating about remote learning? Most of us have become experts in Zoom these days, but what about the abundance of other tools that students and families have been required to use for remote learning?
Training falls under the umbrella of communication, and extensive training was required to ensure that teachers, staff, parents and students had the skills they needed to succeed in a remote learning environment. Distance learning tools need to be adaptable and responsive. How quickly did your school provide the training needed for remote learning platforms? How prepared did teachers, parents and students feel to use these platforms and tools as remote school began?
While training on the use of these tools is important, school communications teams are also responsible for the hardware performance. One middle school in New Jersey reported that this was their biggest challenge at the beginning of the remote school year, with only 60 percent of technology like Chromebooks and internet connections working
correctly. And that percentage might be high based on some anecdotal info I've heard from educators. What kind of supports did your school have in place for tech hiccups during remote learning? How many classes were delayed or cancelled because of technical difficulty? These factors will play into your grade for the Remote Learning category.
And, as Katie Bradesca points out in her article on making remote learning accessible for students with disabilities, have you taken the necessary steps to ensure that all students – even the most vulnerable – can learn and grow while working at home?
Category 3: School staff COVID screening
As your school reopened, you hopefully established screening processes to ensure student and staff safety and prevent the spread of COVID in your school community. How quickly were these protocols implemented? How well did teachers and staff understand the importance of these protocols and how to participate in them?
A COVID screening process for incoming staff should be seamless, safe and remote (i.e., completed away from campus). Did you have the proper tools available to ensure staff with symptoms were staying off campus? Or did school employees seem confused and frustrated by your screening process, or lack thereof?
Category 4: Family engagement
Did you make your decisions in a vacuum?
Including parents, staff, teachers and students in your decision-making processes is an important part of effective school communications. Not only does their input allow you to make responsive, school-specific policies that everyone appreciates, but it also ensures that your community understands why and how certain decisions were made. Top-graded schools in this category will have used surveys, social media and newsletters to engage parents and families about the best way to navigate this unprecedented situation.
An 'honest' report card, honest assessment
We’ve all participated in a self-evaluation before, and sometimes it can be difficult to see our performance clearly. It’s important that school communications professionals understand exactly what they did right and what they could’ve done better during this strange time.
Be honest about your shortcomings so you can improve those areas, because again – this might not be the last time we have to deal with this.
Marketing director and content strategist for Campus Suite, Jay’s a former school public relations specialist who’s helped businesses, schools and colleges use the power of web communications to improve their image, generate support, and optimize relationships. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.