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The COVID-19 Impact: 5 Takeaways from Schools Around the World
Debbie Eisenach

Beginning in early March, Finalsite hosted three panel discussions with school professionals around the world to facilitate the sharing of ideas, perspectives and solutions for dealing with communications, distance learning, admissions and other concerns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Over 1,600 marketing, communication and IT professionals from over fifty countries participated in the webinar series. 

These sessions, along with many conversations with our clients, have spurred great collaboration and the sharing of ideas — enabling all of us to learn together while providing inspiration and support during these challenging times. 

The first panel on 10 March included Irina Mach, director of marketing communication and admissions at Western Academy of Beijing; Kyle Aldous, director of communications at Singapore American School; and Kevin Lynch, director of marketing + communications at Shanghai American School

All three schools were impacted at that time and had already jumped into action, sharing strategies for quickly developing new processes for a virtual world (with no sign of reunion in sight). For webinar attendees, the stories told by Irina, Kyle and Kevin were inspiring.

A few weeks later, we further expanded the panel to reflect the spread of the virus. We welcomed  Wayne Rutherford, Director at the American School of Milan;  Chuck Putney, Website Project & Content Manager at Central Catholic High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, USA and John Mikton, Head of Education and Media Technology at the International School of Luxembourg

During the panel discussions, Finalsite CEO Jon Moser and attendees asked hundreds of questions about strategy and personal experiences. We also polled our attendees: what is their biggest concern? The data is what you might expect.

Our 25 March poll revealed that enrollment followed by distance learning were of utmost concern.

In early April a similar poll revealed many of the same concerns with the addition of graduation and other events being cancelled due to school closures.

So, what conclusions can we draw from hundreds of questions asked and answered, dozens of stories told, and poll data from nearly 2,000 webinar attendees? Turns out, there are quite a few common themes:

  1. Schools are stressed about admissions and re-enrollment — so they’re quickly adapting
  2. Implementing best practice in communications is vital
  3. Distance learning is an evolving process for most schools
  4. In-person events can take on new forms
  5. Schools are looking to the future

1. Schools are stressed about admissions and re-enrollment — so they’re quickly adapting

Admissions and re-enrollment is on the tops of school leaders' minds.  We have heard from schools that inquiries are down sharply,  families are reluctant to re-enroll, parents are asking for fee reductions, and parents are pulling their children out of boarding schools and bringing their students home.  Schools are already predicting a decrease in next year’s enrollment. 

But regardless of these stressors, schools need to, and some in fact are,  are quickly adapting. The Anglo-American School of Sophia uses best practices throughout their virtual admissions page including videos, social media, news, virtual tour, and a value proposition. Site visitors get a compelling overview on what the school is about, what the benefits are and how their students can fit in.

With school campuses not allowing onsite visitors, the International School of Brussels shared how they are providing an engaging virtual admissions experience in this recent webinar. While they were one of the first schools to open the doors to their “digital campus”, many schools soon followed suit, quickly scraping together virtual tours, slideshows and videos to showcase the campus experience, without being there.  

We also know the importance of inbound marketing to drive meaningful engagement to boost enrollment and retain students. Once someone visits your digital campus, you need to engage and convert them, too. Katie Rigney-Zimmerman, Director of Admissions, Marketing, and Communications at Saigon South International discussed in this recent blog post how they pivoted to virtual admissions and were able to easily implement an email drip campaign moving visitors through the admissions funnel by using Finalsite tools and integration with OpenApply’s School Admissions Management System.   

However, admissions isn’t just about focusing on new families. Re-enrollment is also critical. Celebrating the successes to show your community that you care, that you are working together and that you are thriving is absolutely essential during this time. Kevin stated, “Shanghai American School has been digital since January and are now in the spot where we can share stories. We've developed a Stories Committee made up of faculty, parents, and students, and we've asked for weekly suggestions on "remarkable" stories. The Committee has been stellar.”

Additional admission resources:

2. Implementing best practice in communications is vital!

All of the schools who participated in the panel discussion agreed that having consistent and relevant information online is critical. They all have a communication hub which is updated as often as necessary.

The Western Academy of Beijing was one of the first schools who implemented a Communications Hub back in January and it provides a detailed timeline via news stories. As of this writing, the local authorities are allowing a limited staggered start school opening which began this week with Grade 12s and will be followed by Grade 8s from 11 May. Other grades will be announced at a later date. 

Kevin relayed: “We've offered as much normalcy as possible during this time - same channels, same type of content and have added the communications hub on the website as a constant resource. We've also added weekly Head of School and Chief Academic Officer updates. In our experience, the more communications, the better. That said, we also try to be sure our parents' attention is rewarded with substantial information.”

The team at Finalsite has seen so many well-thought-out and well-organized communication hubs that we encourage you to visit our own hub to browse our library and see what other schools are doing.

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3. Distance Learning is an evolving process for most schools. 

With many schools thrust abruptly into distance learning, Kevin shared their leadership perspective: “We've echoed our on-campus philosophy of always learning, always iterating. It has helped to show continuous improvement - both in the perception and reality of our program.”  

Shanghai American School was fortunate in the fact that they had a well defined Distance Learning Plan prior to COVID-19. Their Chief Academic Officer weekly update videos are remarkable and inspiring bringing the whole process to life.

John Mikton, a thought leader in education technology, further outlined key elements for successful distance/online learning:

  • Ensure alignment of Leadership Team in strategy and communication
  • Utilize Professional Learning Networks as somebody will have tried what you might want to do
  • Realize that bandwidth in homes can be an issue, and cut content you normally deliver to students and what you expect from teachers.
  • Work as teams, at department and grade level to ensure consistency. 
  • It's a learning curve for all, both parents and staff are juggling personal home dynamics which do not always sink with the school workflows.
  • Manage expectations and communicate often and clearly to the community, be transparent
  • Take your time - balance and wellness are key
  • Digital Etiquette and Citizenship are still critical 
  • Support each other to work together

While many schools originally took a “bandaid” approach to distance learning, we now know that this isn’t just a temporary change — but a long-term solution that will likely forever be a part of schools’ academic programs.

Having a distance learning hub is critical to keep parents, students and teachers aligned.  Finalsite has crowdsourced many distance learning resources showcasing truly innovative and creative learning from schools of all types from around the world.

We know that school professionals are working 24/7 to deal with challenges never experienced and pivoting on a dime almost daily.  We commend them for their efforts and believe that celebrating successes like Maret School does is their Frog Friday Feature Video is ever so important. Social media is a fabulous way to share as well as outlined in this blog 21 Social Media Posts From Schools That Inspire Community.

Distance Learning Resources:

4. In-person events can take on new forms

We had dozens of questions and a lively discussion on what to do with cancelled events. From Prom, to Senior week to the grand event, Graduation, schools all struggle to make these dreams come true for their students.

Irina Mach gave a very important tip - ask the Seniors for input on these events and creative ideas to replace them if school does not go back.  She said it was a good exercise but the results were clear - “The seniors want everything!” 

Since many of the schools on the call were international, they don’t have the possibility to postpone it to a later date since many families will have moved on to another country or assignment.  But Chuck Putney from Central Catholic High School, stated that their school is considering having something over the Thanksgiving holidays when seniors who have left for college would most likely come home for their first Thanksgiving.  Brilliant idea!

Social media is a great way to celebrate seniors as well.  The American School of Milan is featuring seniors on their homepage in their social media mashup. 

Other schools including Charlotte Country Day  are creating Senior Hubs to celebrate all the great achievements of students!

In spite of social distancing, with some creativity, the use of technology and social media - we have seen a variety of ways to celebrate. 

In a recent blog post, How to Plan and Execute a Virtual Graduation Experience that Truly Honors Seniors, we showcase some creative ideas. Keep in mind, these don’t have to be just for seniors but can be altered to suit other student events.   

5. Schools are looking to the future

No one has a crystal ball, but what we do know is that many of these components of your school’s digital campus won’t go away — they’ll become a long-term component to your marketing, communications, admissions, academics, and development.

Kevin Lynch highlighted: “We've learned parents prefer on-campus learning and there's a greater appreciation for the work our faculty do. It's also clear that the partnership between home and school are key for a student's learning.”

Truth be told, with the 2019-2020 school year quickly coming to an end, schools revealed they are planning for the next year, while others are a bit overwhelmed dealing with the present challenges as revealed in this poll.

Some schools, including Nanjing International School and Shekou International School have some of their students back on campus while others are still learning online. This hybrid learning model was included in a recent webinar hosted by CEO Jon Moser where he discussed the concepts of a Digital Campus and why schools need to be prepared for whatever happens in the next school year. 

Key Takeaway

Whether schools go back and things return to normal, go back in a hybrid mode, or continue with distance online learning, schools need to be prepared for every scenario and to be able to pivot quickly.  We have all learned how things can change in the blink of an eye—Finalsite remains committed to serving schools and helping them navigate uncharted waters so schools are prepared for whatever lies ahead.

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Debbie Eisenach

As part of Finalsite's marketing team, Debbie has worked with international schools for the past nine years while living in both Asia and Europe. From conference planning and presentations to association events and client success stories, she helps schools understand how they can maximize their web presence while partnering with Finalsite. As a parent of three children who attended and graduated from IB World Schools, she has keen insights into the marketing and communication operations and needs of international schools.

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