The Pandemic’s Lasting Impact on School Web Design: How to Prepare for the New Normal
Leah Mangold

There’s no mistake that you’re already intimately familiar with the ways the global pandemic has impacted education in the last year — from cancelled events to restructured learning models, the immediate ramifications have been extraordinary. But what about the long-term effects of these changes? It’s time to look beyond last year and think about how families will interact differently with your school or district online. Not now. Not “through next year.” Permanently. 

So what do you need to know? We’ve broken this blog into two parts: 

Part 1: How the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the online experience — and why it matters for your school or district’s website.

Society is not new to widespread, lasting changes as a result of major events. The 2008 financial crisis changed the way many people approach real estate, for example, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks spurred a level of airport security that newer generations don’t think twice about. If we look back further in history, we can see incontestable effects of previous pandemics, World Wars, and eras marked by advances in technology. The Covid-19 pandemic was no different, as we saw the following major shifts:

  1. Online shopping skyrocketed.
  2. Online interactions are the primary way we’ve stayed social with others.  
  3. Online fraud, theft and scam increased; security heightens.
  4. Accessibility is in the forefront more than ever.  
  5. User experience is becoming a new priority in search rankings.

1. Online shopping skyrocketed. 

According to an analysis by Digital Commerce 360, “The pandemic pushed even more U.S. consumers online, contributing an additional $105 billion in U.S. online revenue in 2020 and accelerating e-commerce by two years.” 

This includes everything from casual clothes to expensive electronics, automotives, and even groceries — the category that, unsurprisingly, gained the most ground in 2020. (Who else experimented with DoorDash while in quarantine? I did, and I’m in good company: the app was downloaded 30 million times in 2020 alone!)

As companies across industries continue to provide “extra” offerings like same-day delivery, BOPUS (Buy Online, Pick Up in Store) and online customer service, those who don’t offer online self-service options will be the exception, not the norm. 

Why this matters for your website: 

The digital customer journey is the "new normal". The habits of buying, connecting, researching and interacting professionally and personally online have given way to — and even demand — a higher expectation for our online experiences. Not only have our choices expanded exponentially now; we expect superior features, function and interactions with the websites we visit.

For schools, this means that parents now have the privilege of being choosy about the kind of online shopping experience they want. With so many options available, it’s easier to abandon websites that take too long to load or seem untrustworthy for online payments. 

The same applies for parents “shopping” for schools. Your website is the core of your school’s digital campus and acts as a window into the quality of education you offer: is your website as well-maintained as the brick and mortar buildings on campus, or does it need a renovation? Does the online prospective experience provide a beautiful tour of your school, or are you making parents walk across a figurative muddy lawn to find what they’re looking for?  

In short, if your school website gives prospective parents any reason to hesitate before adding your to their “cart” — you may be losing families before they can even get to your physical campus. Your website’s design must be hassle-free for parents: easy to navigate, fast to load, and visually-satisfying.  

2. Online interactions are the primary way we’ve stayed social with others.  

Just thinking about how the words “to zoom” have taken on new meaning in the last 12 months is telling enough. In October 2020, Zoom’s stock price was up nearly 600% from 2019

From Zoom birthday parties and screenshare movie-watching to remote learning and virtual school events, we’ve developed creative ways to socialize, learn and relax with others from our respective kitchen tables. 

The lines between home and work (or for students, home and school) have also blurred. Home life has never been so exposed as it is on Zoom. Messy countertops in the background, dogs barking, children interrupting — we hear and see a more casual, more authentic version of our colleagues and classmates by looking through a camera than we did when we met them in public settings. 

Why this matters for your website: 

Blurring the home life/work life line has big implications for your parents and your website:   

First, parents are better than ever at identifying authentic online voices. They expect your school or district’s website design to incorporate engaging testimonials that speak of value and academic and extracurricular satisfaction. Video proof is especially important for engaging a newer generation of audiences. Authentic photography — not stock photos! — also help shape your school’s story and can make or break your website.

Second, parents expect to be able to communicate and connect with your school community online, which means an element of interactivity is important. Whether that is the ability to click through a library of parent videos, connect with other parents via online open houses and social media groups, or participate in online events, your website needs to be both a hub for community engagement and an information outlet for upcoming events, news and announcements. 

Furthermore, schools and districts can no longer rely on “backpack postal service.” Without the physical print-outs to remind parents about an upcoming pajama day or crazy-hat day, families are reliant on your website and your mobile app — they’re accustomed to regular notifications and timely reminders. Thus, even if we were all to go back to in-person learning, the ease of event notifications and calendar information will continue to be an expectation. 

If your website platform doesn’t have the functionality to send event-related push notifications and personalized email communications, and isn’t designed with a community-focused, “self-service hub” mindset, you’re not meeting key parent needs. 

3. Online fraud, theft and scam increased; security heightens.

What happens when you combine a sudden dependence on technology for everyday activities with an abundance of online hackers, skilled scammers and bored, isolated people looking to cause trouble? Answer: Scams.

“The pandemic has created a scenario of insecurity that is inviting fraudsters to exploit the crisis situation by extracting money or information or by creating vulnerabilities,” state researchers in a December 2020 article in the International Journal of Information Management, who also predict that these kinds of attacks will continue to rise after the pandemic and bring in the need for new security measures. 

“Organizations will implement massive security arrangements, along with extensive information campaigns by government departments. Security innovations and firms that offer security services will rise. Research will likely focus on managing security, assess the causes of breaches, and the economic and social loss from them.” 

Schools, unfortunately, haven’t been spared from these concerns. In fact, some have been easy targets — with attacks ranging from costly ransomware and student identity theft to socially-disruptive “zoom bombing” of classrooms. If the trend holds, school administrators will, too, need to look closely at security and cyber-attack prevention.

Why this matters for your website: 

The case for moving away from open source website solutions to a secure, data-protected website provider is stronger than it's ever been. Your IT department can also implement a variety of website measures to take security and privacy precautions to the next level — such as building password-protected community portals and implementing SSOs (Single Sign Ons)

But for parents — who don’t know the nitty-gritty details of data security — your website’s design plays a key role in ensuring peace of mind. Perception is reality, and an outdated website can be an immediate red flag to families. If you look like you don’t have a pulse on modern design expectations, how can they be sure you are up-to-par with data security and privacy? Don’t scare your visitors away!

A solid website design with clean, cohesive branding and well-thought-out landing pages promotes trust in your school and gives parents less reason to question your security protocols and decisions.

4. Accessibility is in the forefront more than ever.  

"Before COVID-19, it was easy to understand why a person in a wheelchair might need a ramp to enter a building, but the reality of a homebound person struggling to click through a government site to pay taxes felt obscure and out of reach," says FastCompany. Now, however, with everyone homebound, that need is much more visible.

Education has shifted to a digital campus model, and websites are as much of a necessity for learning as a brick and mortar classroom. With this shift comes a more pressing need for equitable website experiences.

Why this matters for your website: 

Your website must meet accessibility standards — which includes everything from adding alt text to all of your photos and subtitles and transcripts with your videos to creating a design with the structural and navigational elements that accessibility requires. 

If you haven't redesigned in a few years, it's likely that your website isn't meeting the needs of your entire community — some of whom may need the help of an Ally toolbar or a PDF reader to access content the same way others do. 

On the same vein, students with limited access to the Internet or who don't have their own laptops, present an additional need for website accessibility. Your website needs to be accessible on mobile devices and able to load quickly on cellular data. 

5. User experience is taking up a new priority in search rankings.

In light of COVID-19, Google announced that its Page Experience update — a set of algorithms that will prioritize user-friendly and mobile-friendly pages in search results — will go into effect in May 2021. The anticipated update will use what Google calls “Core Web Vitals” to determine page rankings and “punish” websites that are insecure, unfriendly on mobile devices, and slow to load. Eek!

Google's page experience update infographic

Source: Google Search Central

Why this matters for your website: 

Finalsite websites prioritize the user experience, which now has a direct impact on your website’s SEO (Search Engine Optimization). If you are struggling to stay relevant in Google search as it is, you’ll be even further behind come May if you don’t improve your website. Websites designed with mobile-first and interactive, user-friendly functionality will see success in their Google standings.  

Related Reading: What Google’s Page Experience Update Means For Your School 


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Part 2: Improving your website to meet post-pandemic parent expectations.  

Due to the sheer volume of websites that we all visit on a regular basis, parents are better at discerning between what is a good web experience and what is not — school websites included. Your school or district’s website needs to keep up with a more sophisticated online standard than before the pandemic.

Up-to-date software

If you’re a Finalsite Composer client, you’re already a step ahead with many of the must-have website features. On the backend, you have secure website hosting, the ability to make quick-and-easy updates with C.O.P.E software, and a resource management tool that automatically optimizes for site speed and helps you ensure accessibility compliance.

But that’s only part of the story. To fully meet post-pandemic user expectations, you need to take at what your visitors see: the website’s design and structure. 

Functional website design and structure

Design that is sensitive to the latest trends and best practices aren’t just cool for the sake of being cool. It’s about functionality and purpose. 

What stands out about Finalsite’s most recent website designs is not the fancy design treatments or futuristic animations (though we do those, too!). What stands out is the intentional and functional design that makes it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for — or if they don’t know, direct them to where the school wants them to go. 

Post-pandemic website design is centered around sharing content that audiences will find important. In a recent episode of Website Wednesday, Chief Innovation Officer Angelo Otterbein and Director of Client Solutions Ritsa LaFond share four great examples of school websites that utilize the following functional design trends:

Streamlined navigation

Cours-Hattemer, an international school in France, has a website design centered around showing content that the audiences will find important — in whichever language they need it in.

screenshot of header navigation and language translation for Hattemer's website

Three value statements are presented in the hero area, motivating users to click through about each item and get a sense of the school’s distinctions immediately.  

Cours Hattemer homepage screenshot

The site’s use of sticky navigation (in the header menu and on the call-to-action buttons on the right-hand side) give visitors immediate access to important pages — even if they’re scrolling through other areas of the website. 

Purposeful animation and video content

The Commonwealth School’s design has a subtle animated, pulsating play button centered on its hero video. This has a clear, functional design purpose — to intrigue visitors and get them to click on the video. 

“People who click to watch the video will watch for longer than they would have if it had been automatically playing (on silent),” says Ritsa. This video, with its compelling narrative, is best watched with the sound on. The animated play button helps the video get more views. 

Visual hierarchy to display bite-sized content

Visual hierarchy means putting visual importance on certain pieces of information — whether that’s contextual or graphical — so that users can quickly and easily read and digest the information,” says Ritsa. 

The infographic panel on the The Commonwealth School’s homepage is designed to encourage visitors to first read the words “By the Numbers,” and then stay intrigued to look at the facts, displayed graphically — a much more engaging and effective way to portray the school’s distinctions than if it was written out in paragraph form. 

Interactive, authentic social proof

The Commonwealth School’s design also does a great job incorporating testimonials, notes Ritsa:

“Social proof has become much more important now that we have been restricted and confined in our own homes. So being able to show that human side on your website in a way that connects with people remotely — where users can interact and read through the examples quickly and succinctly is important.

Commonwealth School testimonial panel screenshot

Clear distinction between news and events

Stillwater Public Schools’ design has a clean layout that does a great job communicating the busyness of the district — 8,400 students across 14 schools makes for a lot going on — in a way that doesn’t feel like information overload. The use of white space in the design helps to easily separate content related to upcoming events, important updates, news, and general information about each grade level in respective homepage panels:

Stillwater Area Public Schools homepage screenshot

Plus, each school has its own navigation and content, yet lives within the style and design of the large district site to maintain a consistent look and feel. 

Lily Lake Elementary school homepage

A seamless, “thumb-friendly” mobile experience

Gratz College’s website design is an excellent example of functional web design — look how well the design works on a mobile device: 

screenshot of Gratz College's navigation

The use of varying font color/size, bold lines, arrows and + signs are visual design choices that help users distinguish between sections and use the menu with ease. 

Take the drop-down in the academics section of the navigation bar, for example. It’s easy to locate tier-2 pages (By Degree Level, By Program, In This Section) and go right to the academic page you’re looking for — no need to click on a page, wait for it to load, and then click into the section. 

screenshot of Gratz College's navigation

This makes it so much easier for students at this college to think about the courses they need for their degree path — which is especially important because this higher education institution is an all-online school. No course selection booklet or physical handout necessary!

The keyword search bar and large call-to-action buttons are great features of this website as well — evidence of a well-thought out structure that really takes into consideration the needs of both current students (who want to easily find specific pages) and prospective students (who aren’t sure exactly what they want to see and may need more of a guided experience). 

Inspired? Be sure to take a look at the Gratz College website desktop view, too! It sure has a homepage design that delights on any size device — a necessity for web design today. 

Gratz College homepage screenshot

Key Takeaway: What’s Next? 

If you find yourself saying “no” more readily and frequently, then the time for a redesign is now. 

We are now looking at websites and web experiences with renewed purpose and a new lens. Undoubtedly this past year made some areas of your website that need improvement glaringly obvious. But now that we are a year wiser - review your site against the new, and dare we say "improved," consumer behaviors and web design trends that will mark 2021 and beyond. It may be time to take a renewed approach to your website this year as well.

Website redesign playbook


Leah-Mangold-Headshot

As Finalsite's client marketing specialist, Leah promotes new school websites and content marketing examples from schools around the world. She’s also writer and editor of numerous blog articles and eBooks on best practices for digital marketing, social media, and school web design. Leah found her passion for international education at Arcadia University, where she earned her BA in Global Communications and studied abroad in England, Greece, Vietnam and Australia. When she’s not exploring new places, she’s either blogging, doodling, or dreaming about it.

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