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Schools Up Communications Game During Pandemic

In order to help both parents and students stay informed about evolving plans related to the COVID-19 pandemic, some school districts are attempting to find new and improved ways to communicate.

Many K-12 schools’ plans for reopening during this pandemic-impacted school year have changed so often that one needs a scorecard to keep track. Amid all that change, schools must adhere to their varying local and state requirements, all while still ensuring that safe, effective instruction is delivered daily to students, regardless of the format: remote, hybrid, face-to-face, or some combination.

Also knee deep in these uncharted waters are parents trying to make the best of their own untenable situations, while hoping their schools will keep them well-informed and their students learning.

In other words, if ever there was a time when schools needed to have good communication channels with their communities, this is it. And to their credit, some schools are rising to the occasion. But to be successful, a school communication strategy requires a commitment from school leaders, as well an allocation of time and resources.

From my own recent work with schools, as well as a look at other schools’ communication practices updated to address pandemic-related topics, here is a sampling of some of the winning approaches I've found.

District-Level Communications

This starts with the distric's website. A good district website is current, well organized, and reflects the district’s commitment to a transparent and thoughtful communication strategy. The district’s COVID-19 response efforts are also given prime positions on the home page, providing concise high-level information with clear links directing users to more topic-specific materials. COVID-19 messages, both text and video, are honest, reassuring, and reflect an empathic “we’re all in this together” attitude from leadership — like the videos from the Chappaqua, N.Y., school district website featuring COVID-19 procedures and information from each of their schools. Finally, FAQ pages, coupled with ways for parents and students to ask questions, are kept current and in an easily navigable format.

Other important methods for district-level communications include:

  • Social Media: Knowing that many in their communities are more tuned in to social media than the Web, districts are maintaining a variety of sources to transmit information: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as well as a district YouTube channel.
  • Robocalls and Text Messaging: Many parents have grown weary of schools’ use of these communication methods and find them increasingly intrusive, so wise districts are using them only for emergency situations while encouraging parents to regularly check the district’s other communication channels for regularly updated information.
  • School Board Meetings: Let’s face it, these are usually snooze-worthy events for most. But during the pandemic they’ve become more important to families wanting to better understand their district’s decision-making processes. Airing board meetings and other district town hall events live via video conferencing is a good move. But editing them down into topical sections and then posting them as videos so viewers can jump through to their particular items of interest can be worth the time and effort.
  • Translations: In keeping with the “know your audience” maxim, districts are ensuring important information is communicated in the languages of their communities — both for text and video.
  • Communicating with District Teachers and Staff: Rather than using their public-facing sites, districts are leveraging internal systems for communicating directly with teachers and staff. And likewise for providing a feedback loop for staff members with district leadership.

School-Level Communications

School websites adhere to the same guidelines as their district sites. And they also share a common district-wide template and format so parents with kids in multiple schools can easily navigate them. As with the Chappaqua schools cited earlier, videos from teachers, staff and school leaders are used to help provide a more personal touch to schools’ websites and social media channels. And student-focused videos are also featured front and center.

Schools are also using the communication resources within their student information systems (SIS) and their learning management systems (LMS). These are proving especially useful for classroom-specific topics and for access to learning resources for parents to use in assisting their kids. Some school leaders are finding new ways to communicate with their communities, like the head administrator at a Santa Fe, N.M., charter school who produces a weekly podcast on topics related to his school’s reopening: The Hypothesis.

Finally, with both their teachers and students working and learning remotely, school leaders are scheduling regular home visits with their staff and students — either virtually or safely in-person. This level of commitment and leadership goes a long way towards helping schools maintain communications, as well as a strong school climate, even when the school building is closed.

Classroom-Level Communications

The job of being a teacher has never been more challenging. And finding ways to establish and maintain good communications with their students has never been more important. So in addition to their daily instruction and preparations, teachers are keeping their LMS and SIS information current; maintaining virtual office hours to meet with students; and making phone calls and sending emails and texts to both students and parents to keep lines of communication open, and to help ensure their students' needs — both academic and social-emotional — are being met.

A strong communication culture begins at the top of any organization, and so too with schools. School leaders — superintendents, school principals and others — who take the time and make the effort to communicate well and often, and likewise set that expectation for their staff, will be appreciated by their communities, especially during difficult times like these.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.