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Returning to the Classroom: How to Communicate Your District’s Plan to Reopen

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Returning to the Classroom: How to Communicate Your District’s Plan to Reopen

By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications

School districts across the county are about to turn the page on an historic chapter in American history.  Students spent almost a third of the school year going to class at the kitchen table.  Teachers learned to become adept purveyors of distance-learning.  Parents quickly became tutors and taskmasters while balancing the demands of their own remote worksites.  There were no proms.  No end-of-year intramural athletic competitions.  No graduation parties. For seniors, there was no closure.  For younger students, no clear path forward – at this point – regarding plans for the fall.

District boards and administrative staffs across the country weeks ago began the herculean task of preparing for the fall semester in an environment no one can clearly envision. Will COVID-19 be in remission at that point?  Will the government – meaning all 50 state governments – allow in-person classroom instruction?  Will students attend school in shifts?  What about school buses?  What about sports and extracurriculars?

Districts are wrestling with the logistics of creating new learning spaces that incorporate social distancing.  Establishing protocols for enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Considering rules for face masks. Looking at cafeteria setups and break rooms for faculty. The list of tasks will be long.  One item that needs to be on that list is communications.

No doubt your district has significantly stepped up its communications during the past weeks and months. In the early days of COVID-19, your communication team probably learned quickly that more communication worked better than less.  Telling what you knew when you knew instilled confidence; going silent did not. This was the time to embrace transparency, admit to not having all the answers and promising to share more when you could.

Now is the time to take those learnings and turn them into a communications action plan for the fall.  Here are some of the strategies and tactics to consider as your district’s communicators begin that work.

How is your district fielding parent and community questions and concerns? Do you have a method? How are you using your website? Is it always up to date?  Or is there language on the home page referring to something that happened two months ago or an upcoming event that was subsequently cancelled?  How is your district using email and social media?

As your district’s plan begins to gel, your team should look for every opportunity to employ transparency and timeliness.  Tell people what you know right now. Tell them what you don’t yet (but are working to figure out). And, tell them what the process is going to be going forward.

By doing this, by engaging in an extraordinary level of transparency, even when the district doesn’t have all the answers or even when you make a mistake, you will build trust.  And a reservoir of trust will be one of the most important commodities your district can have as our country begins the new school year next fall.  Here are some other points to consider during the great gift of advance planning time you will have in the coming weeks:

  • Does your communications plan have enough detail? Does it identify the precise dates when you will complete specific tasks so you’re strategically using the summer months to talk to parents, students, teachers and staff?
  • Is your messaging consistent? Are teachers, assistants, front office staff and school board members all saying the same thing?
  • Have board members settled on and shared talking points so that the message from the district is consistent?
  • If your district uses email as its primary communication tool, consider fine-tuning your distribution process. Consider sending out two versions of your email messages:  one with hyperlinks; the other without.  If you have students and parents without easy access to broadband, it makes little sense to send them emails loaded with hyperlinks or multi-page PDFs.
  • You should prepare to reach out regularly over the summer to staff, students, parents, vendors and community leaders to let them know the details of your preliminary reopening plans. With the avalanche of pandemic news over the last few months, your audiences will welcome positive news – no matter how general.
  • You need to talk about how your reopening plans – and ongoing operating plans – will follow specific requirements from your governor’s office, your state department of health, your state department of education, state and city boards of health, and perhaps the CDC.
  • Post details of your reopening plans everywhere – on your district’s intranet, in your e-newsletters, on your blogs and on the private social media groups you participate in. And don’t forget more traditional avenues such as the local newspaper.

For the foreseeable future, your most important stakeholders – students, parents, teachers and staff – will have one overriding concern: safety. How are you addressing that concern in your communications? It will be very important to keep talking and writing about the safety measures you’re putting in place, and overcommunicate new policies and procedures.

Consider using Facebook Live to SHOW (and not just TELL) stakeholders what you’re doing.  Use teachers or staff to “take” stakeholders into the schools to show everyone exactly how you’ll enforce social distancing and practice enhanced cleaning methods.  Consider doing updates as your plans progress.

In the broadest sense, key elements of communicating about your safe schools should include:

  • Honesty – Be forthright about what’s worked and what hasn’t.  Explain what you’re doing, what you’re not doing and what the process is going to be going forward.
  • Attitude – You should exude confidence. Not with arrogance, but in recognition of the fact that operating a successful school district that serves the needs of every student is a highly complicated endeavor and you are experienced in doing that.
  • Decision-Making – Don’t promise perfection. Rather, explain your decisions to stakeholders.  Correct evident errors or oversights promptly.
  • Empathy – Show empathy.  Acknowledge the stress everyone is under.  There is probably nothing more important to communicate right now than a sense of concern and humanity.
  • Preparing for the Future – COVID-19 might come back in the fall and schools might need to re-close.  What plans are you making for that?

Finally, remember that communications plans are not evergreen documents. They must be reviewed and updated regularly to address emerging issues, new protocols and new concerns. Never will this golden rule be more true than during the 2020-2021 school year. You will want to adjust the methods you are using to communicate and perhaps add some new ones.  You will want to consider what other districts are doing to reach their stakeholders and adopt some of their ideas.

Most important, you will want to hear from parents, teachers, staff and students and adjust your plan to address their needs. These are your stakeholders and they are looking to you for leadership during a time that no one has led us through before.  

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Founded in 1989, Hennes Communications is one of the few firms in North America focused exclusively on crisis management and communications, serving schools, government agencies, for-profits and non-profits “that are on trial in the Court of Public Opinion.”  Recently, the Ohio School Boards Association entered into a strategic partnership with Hennes Communications to provide crisis management and communications services to public school systems throughout the State of Ohio facing sudden challenges to their organizations’ reputations and operations.  For more information:  www.crisiscommunications.com, 216-321-7774.