Schools nationwide are gearing up for the 2021-22 school year -- a year we thought would be back to normal after two school years of COVID-19 restrictions already behind us. But here we are: COVID-19 restrictions and mask debates are once again dominating school board meetings and news coverage. This year is looking far from normal.
As we enter a third pandemic school year, it's time to reflect on what has worked well in school communications and what to be mindful of moving forward. In this article, we’ll go over three lessons learned for communicating during times of change:
1. Communicate Early and Often
2. Provide Inclusive Communications
3. Show Empathy
Communicate Early and Often
If one thing is certain, it’s that COVID-19 restrictions are polarizing topics. No decisions made will be greeted with open arms by everyone in your school community. Although there isn’t one single way to make people happy, your community will always appreciate staying informed. This means getting out ahead of potentially controversial topics or decisions before they turn into community-wide debates.
A big part of staying ahead of controversy means sharing updates often, even if no concrete decisions have yet been made. Don’t leave a void for people to fill in the gaps. If you know there is a topic on the minds of your families (like masking, for example), speak up about it!
As Superintendent Susan Enfield said during her keynote speech at School PR Day 2021:
“The conversations that have been had about coming back to school have been fraught with emotion, with fear, with anxiety and with uncertainty. And when you are dealing with any kind of situation where the feelings of fear and uncertainty are so pervasive, communication becomes key. There is no way you can over communicate during a crisis.”
Masking is just one variable parents are asking about as the new school year begins. With so much to share as we head into August, it’s important to house all of your back-to-school information in one easy-to-find location. We recommend creating a back-to-school hub on your website to serve as your one-stop-shop for all back-to-school information.
Tulsa Public Schools has a back-to-school hub prominently displayed on its website, with topics like masking, vaccinations and calendars front and center.
The website is updated frequently and parents know to look here for any important news or updates.
Boys’ Latin School of Philadelphia keeps 2021-22 school year news in its main navigation bar, with content relating to masking, vaccination, physical distancing and more.
Richfield Public Schools organizes its content with easily read accordion tabs with links to additional information.
Like many school districts, Lakota Local Schools is doing more than just a website hub. Director of School/Community Relations Betsy Fuller said, “We’ll launch our back-to-school social media countdown next. Each day, we’ll post a specific reminder or information about returning to school. I’m sure that a mask update will be one of them. On Fridays, we’ll send an email wrap-up that contains all of the posts from the week and links to more information on the back-to-school hub.”
No matter how you approach the back-to-school hub concept, organizing this content in an easy-to-find spot on your website is critical to launching the school year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Key Communications Channels to Utilize During COVID-19:
Website (back-to-school hub): Update weekly with new information, links to relevant newsletters, new guidance
Email newsletters: Send weekly. Include new information added to back-to-school hub
Mobile App: Use push notifications for urgent communications and when new information is posted on web or sent via email
SMS Text: For urgent communications and when new information is posted on the website or via email
Social Media: Use sparingly for COVID-19 updates
Provide Inclusive Communications
Throughout COVID-19, the magnifying glass has been on school communications everywhere, and inclusive communications are no longer optional. With critical information like safety protocols being shared and updated on a regular basis, it’s important that your communications are understood by all audiences - this includes multilingual families and those with visual impairments.
Even though Sycamore 427’s Spanish-speaking population is small, they know that translating web content is of the utmost importance. That’s why they power their Finalsite website translation with Weglot, a built-in translation tool with advanced accuracy superior to more basic tools like Google Translate. With Weglot, you can choose the languages that are important to your district and make adjustments to any discrepancies in the translation yourself with just a few clicks.
Sycamore takes things a step further with hand-translating newsletters and adding Spanish captions to videos to ensure multilingual families are kept fully informed.
ADA compliance has likely been on your radar for several years now, but an area we see districts get stuck is with PDFs. Not only are these generally not ADA compliant, but they are also not searchable or translatable on your website. If you are requiring families to complete certain forms related to COVID or otherwise to start the year, consider making them digital forms instead to ensure full compliance and accessibility.
Read more: All About Finalsite Forms
Last on our list, but among the most important is showing empathy in your communications during these turbulent times. Everyone’s experience with the pandemic has been unique, and it’s difficult to know or fully understand the full range of emotions that are felt with every school decision being made. Especially going into a third school year with COVID as a variable, it’s important to be very aware of how your words and communications might make people feel.
Some of the districts that have gained the most trust and respect throughout the pandemic have done so by simply showing care and empathy through every interaction.
Glenview 34 has a holistic approach to social emotional wellness, and it shows in their communications. For example, having dedicated an entire section of the Glenview 34 website to the #BeWell34 initiative, self care and wellness are more than just buzzwords in this community. #BeWell34 even has a prominent appearance on the district’s back-to-school hub, emphasizing that emotional wellness is part of going back to school, especially this year.
One of the greatest ways to show empathy is through video, as it allows a more human element to shine through communications.
Lakota Local Schools superintendent Dr. Matt Miller (The 2019 NSPRA Superintendent to Watch!) does a phenomenal job interacting with his community through video. He hosts a monthly superintendent chat, both via video and in person to address the community’s questions and concerns. His authentic voice shines through video much more clearly than in writing alone. It’s clear his community values these opportunities.
Your videos don’t need to be professionally produced to make an impact. In fact, there is a lot of validity and connection that comes from a selfie video created by a school or district leader (Matt Miller’s Facebook videos are great examples!). It shows they are just like the rest of us, even if their professional position is intimidating.
Emotions are high as schools around the world enter a third pandemic school year. Communications are key as you get the year underway. Be sure your district is sharing information often, with empathy and with inclusive communication practices in mind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Morgan Delack is Finalsite's Director of Communications, leading the marketing team's public school content, branding initiatives and professional development events. Morgan's background is a mixture of public school communications and television journalism, having worked in both industries for several years. She was named among NSPRA's 35 under 35 and has earned two Emmy Awards for her work in broadcasting. Morgan lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids.