As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge, school districts across Washington and the country are facing the question of how and when they will reopen for the 2020-2021 school year. Amid the confusing, and often conflicting, statements from federal and local authorities about the fate of schools this fall, parents are anxious for clarity.
As we’ve been supporting clients in this space, we wanted to pass along a few key ideas for being proactive with communication as you work to reach parents, students, staff, media and the broader community.
1. Be clear. Be frequent.
As we experience daily change in the circumstances around the pandemic and policy guidance, schools are facing a once-in-a-generation challenge to develop a range of plans and options for students and families. This makes communication to those audiences more important than ever, but also more difficult! News coverage about what other states or districts are doing mean families feel increasing pressure to understand the local plan.
Districts must plan and release a steady cadence of reliable and clear communications for families specifically addressing your district’s plan and contingencies in the event circumstances change.
2. Make space for two-way communication.
Districts have great mechanisms for distributing information: websites, social media, texts, eNews, student programs like Blackboard, etc. It is more difficult to create venues for dialogue and questions. Video webinars have helped to bridge this gap and, in our experience, districts that use them are receiving excellent engagement and feedback from parents. Two-way engagement allows audiences to participate and feel heard, which is important in building trust and transparency.
3. Humanize your messaging.
During challenging times, strong leadership carries the day. Superintendents who are visible and accessible, through videos, webinars and communications that carry their name, demonstrate leadership, credibility and trust at a time in which those attributes are in short supply. It will also be important for districts to showcase teachers, administrators and staff who are doing amazing work to support their students and prepare for this school year.
4. Plan for a dynamic year.
No one knows what the 2020-2021 school year will bring. It may be a combination of in-school and virtual learning. It may be all virtual. Districts will want to have a strong communications plan and protocol for keeping staff and families up to date and engaging with them about their questions and concerns as we all navigate this together. Prepare your staff, students, parents and community for possible contingencies by describing them, how the district is prepared to react in those situations and ask for their support as you all embark on into these choppy waters together.
Communities will collectively understand that districts are being asked to take on an extremely challenging situation by gearing up virtual learning and physically distant in-person learning models in such short order. To maintain goodwill, you’ll need to maintain great communication that walks audiences through your plans. As things change, create clarity around why educational changes are necessary for public health and quality of student education.
If you don’t have interactive tools ready for deployment, now is the time to activate them to create consistent communication between the district and parents. If there was ever a time for social media, eBlasts and webinars, it’s now. Videos that clearly articulate your district’s plan are also a particularly effective tactic that makes information easy to absorb. Staff up and closely monitor community conversations on your social channels, written feedback or common questions that your staff are hearing from parents.
Build and populate a master content calendar planning posts, updates and distributions of information across your channels that engages parents with the latest information as things change. This will help you plan and maintain a cadence of frequent communication that reiterates key ideas and next steps parents need to take to register their kids for the year and stay abreast of new information.
Prepare your district spokespeople — be they administrators, school board members or teachers — who are prepared to staff webinars or conduct media interviews. Make sure everyone is working from the same message platform and give them practice using it. Know who your strongest speakers are and get them through media training if possible.
Have a crisis communications and/or incident response plan in place to account for potential scenarios, outline the district’s reporting protocol and provide ready-to-use tools that will speed your ability to communicate effectively and quickly.
Questions or want help?
If you have questions or need help gearing up communications strategies and staffing these tools, let us know. We’re currently working with districts on designing and implementing these very strategies — we’re more than happy to spend time walking through ideas in more detail.