Navigating New Communications Challenges as Students Return to Class

More than 70 million students in the U.S. have returned to school over the past few weeks. About half of the nation’s 56 million pre-K through high school students began classes virtually, while fewer than 25 percent of colleges are offering classes exclusively or primarily in person. Regardless of the specific learning model a school has chosen, this year promises to be fraught with new and complex communications challenges. A school’s ability to lead and communicate effectively through these unprecedented times will define its reputation for years to come.

Be Human First

Against the backdrop of a pandemic, communicating with empathy is more important than ever.  The return to school conjures a wide range of emotions, from anxiety and fear to disappointment and anger.  As issues emerge throughout the year and adjustments need to be communicated, lead with kindness and compassion.  Anticipate difficult questions and ensure you are prepared to answer them factually, and with relatability.  While certain communications like health and safety protocols are rather detailed by nature, avoid using language that is overly technical or sterile.  Ensure that your school’s primary goal of keeping its students and school community safe comes through in everything you do and say.

Maintain Flexibility

These are extraordinarily fluid times – COVID clusters can arise overnight and a Zoom outage can send an instructor’s syllabus into a tailspin.  Acknowledge the pace at which things can change and avoid over-committing. People understand that schools may be dealing with conflicting agendas and changing dynamics – many of which are outside of their direct control – but schools that over-promise and under-deliver will suffer a blow to their credibility.  Be honest, be authentic, and be prepared to back up what you communicate with action.

Support Your Faculty and Staff

Schools around the country spent the better part of the summer wrestling with a simple but critical question: What is best for our students? There are, of course, many factors at play in addressing this question, but few as important as an engaged and empowered faculty and staff.  Teachers are natural leaders, and learning institutions need to rely on them now more than ever to bridge the gap between what has worked for students in the past and what can work amid today’s unfamiliar new paradigm.  Take steps to provide educators with the resources and support they need.  Arm them with communications materials and guidance to address questions from concerned parents and students.  Make sure they know where to turn if faced with a troubling issue or a question they cannot answer. And finally, make sure there is an interface for two-way dialogue with the administration to ensure awareness of developing issues and that messages are resonating and materials are proving helpful.

Establish Communications Hubs

Parents and caregivers have more on their plates than ever before.  Make it easier for your audiences to stay current on school communications by creating a centralized hub where students, parents and other members of your community can easily access current calendars, policies, remote learning guidance and FAQs.  Make clear where folks can take their questions or concerns and ensure you have the resources in place to handle an influx of inquiries. Create a similar hub for internal staff.

Plan for Potential Future Scenarios

As we learned in March, a pandemic of this magnitude means organizations can be forced to change course in the blink of an eye – whether prepared or not.  From the impending flu season and a second COVID wave to faculty and student disputes to privacy concerns and technical outages, there are a range of potential scenarios schools should be prepared to address. Start by identifying the most likely – and most difficult – scenarios your institution could face and develop response plans.  Assign team roles and responsibilities, including back-ups for key personnel in the event they are unreachable during a critical time.  Develop step-by-step protocols and escalation procedures and draft sample communications materials for students, parents and internal staff.  Even if a crisis arises down the road that is unrelated to the specific scenario you planned for, having a basic response framework in place will go a long way toward ensuring your organization is positioned to act quickly, keep your school community safe and preserve credibility and trust.

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