Schools Work to Create Clear Communications Plans for Return

Covid School

It’s a tense time for education. Teachers are fraught with worry over possible outbreaks of the virus in their classrooms. Parents fret about sending children to college, where safe behavior cannot be guaranteed. For those with younger children, a concern is that schools have loose guidelines around masks, and a lot of speculation. 

In fact, just slightly more than half  of parents (54 percent) are satisfied with COVID-19-related communication from their college student’s school, according to TimelyMD, a telehealth company that specializes in higher education.

“The coronavirus has amplified parents’ desire for administrative oversight and more student support services,” said Luke Hejl, TimelyMD's CEO.  

So what to expect this fall? We’ve already seen outbreaks in school districts located in hot-zone states. A larger test will come after Labor Day, when all students are expected to be back in the classroom. And because there are no federal guidelines or mandates, plans will vary widely. The lack of consistency may ignite another rash of outbreaks. In several areas, infections already seem out of control. 

Some cities and states are advising parents well before the first day of school. Los Angeles and Chicago, for example, announced virtual learning for at least the rest of 2021. New York City awaits approval from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but it seems intent on a hybrid-learning model, the only major U.S. city to do so. Cuomo announced approval for all New York state schools to open in the fall at a press teleconference today. 

The patchwork of reopening and safety plans has resulted in a high demand for clear and decisive communication to answer questions and calm concerns. However, few educators have dealt with an issue of this magnitude. 

Guidelines for a Communications Strategy

Lori Perlow is communications manager at the Camden County Educational Services Commission in New Jersey. The Commission represents 12 school districts throughout New Jersey. It's akin to a communication agency partner. Extremely busy in the lead-up to the first day of school, Perlow, in an interview with PRNEWS, offered best practices for effective education communication. 

Pick Communications Leadership

It’s important to identify a point person for strategy, media relations etc. As with any crisis, creating a plan in advance can dampen confusion. The trouble is that “90 percent" of New Jersey school districts lack a dedicated communication professional, Perlow said. “Absent a communication professional, communication often falls onto the plate of the superintendent or building principal, who typically has no formal [communication] training,” she said. “The districts that have an established culture for ongoing and open communication received favorable reviews from stakeholders when surveyed." 

Fortunately, at colleges or in major metropolitan city school districts, it is likely a communication department exists. Those departments should follow standard crisis communication tactics. For example, as with any crisis, creating a plan in advance can reduce confusion.

Another issue in New Jersey is that information follows a circuitous route before arriving at the local level. Decisions and information follow a statewide chain-of-command that begins with the governor and flows through the Department of Health and Department of Education. It makes several more stops before ending at the local Board of Education/Superintendent. 

Identify stakeholder needs

As noted above, parents and students are not the only stakeholders who need information about the 2020-2021 school year.

“Administrators know the coming year will be unlike any they’ve experienced or trained for,” Perlow said. “Some...conducted anonymous online surveys of staff and families to gauge their comfort in returning to work and school and to learn more about their concerns." Response rates were off the charts, she said, which was immensely helpful. 

Some districts even made stakeholders part of the planning team.  

“Many districts...created pandemic response teams (a subsequent requirement from the state) that met virtually to draft reopening plans,” she said. “Effective pandemic response teams include a mix of internal and external stakeholders, such as parents, bus drivers and food service workers.” 

Have a central online area…

Educational behemoths like the New York City public schools, and many colleges, including Cornell University, created dedicated sites for stakeholders to find information about reopening and COVID-19. Creating a central site where all information resides reduces confusion. In addition, it can be an extremely helpful tactic when there aren’t enough skilled communicators or response teams to handle questions 24-7.

The NYC site includes information on health and safety, as well as facts about blended learning models and school schedules. Cornell’s includes a re-entry checklist and information about an "arrival test," which includes screening students prior to and upon arrival on campus. 

Perlow applauds increases in digital communication. Use of video messages during the pandemic has worked well for many administrators, especially "when information is complex and changing rapidly,” she said. “It also helps to build trust when you see the school leader in their environment sharing an important message.” well as an area to take questions.

Things are a lot different since the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, when television and the internet were not yet glimmers in the eyes of inventors. Sure, telephone and radio existed, but not with the precision and wide-spread availability of today. While this will be a school year like no other, administrators have tools to continue open and clear communication with stakeholders. 

Every educational institution should have some area, preferably located in the online information, where parents, students and media, or anyone who just wants to know something about the semester, can contact leadership. Finding answers to questions, sooner rather than later, can bolster not only trust, but also the fluctuation of the virus. 

“Families are encouraged to start with their building principals when they have questions and concerns specific to their students,” Perlow said referring to her districts. “Inevitably, angry parents will go straight to the top and email or call the superintendent. Establishing a chain of command helps information seekers resolve questions faster. Districts also created COVID-19 hubs on their websites, where parents can access important district and community updates."

Offering dedicated email addresses where parents and school employees can submit questions also is useful, Perlow said. Often these questions are added to a growing FAQ list, she added.

Even with the uncertainty surrounding how the virus may impact a new school year, communication professionals can remain one step ahead by creating clear, accessible information for stakeholders.

Nicole Schuman is a reporter for PRNEWS. Follow her: @buffalogal