Communications preparation key to successful school reopenings

Jennifer Eidson

As summer wanes, states are finalizing and implementing plans for the most complicated school reopenings ever. In trying to keep students, educators and staff safe from coronavirus, school districts have adopted recommendations regarding facilities, classroom layouts, scheduling and student behaviors from medical and public health experts. They should also be developing communications plans to keep reopenings on track and the community’s focus on education.

As we’ve learned from helping companies communicate at the start of the pandemic, this is a contentious and evolving situation and we’re likely to be in it for a while. Having a communications plan to complement a health and safety plan can help school officials respond quickly if reopenings hit a roadblock. 

It’s clear that the stakes for schools are high. Teachers across the country are pushing back against in-person instruction and their unions are poised to support whatever actions educators believe are necessary to protect their health, including protests, strikes and lawsuits. That pushback includes communications initiatives, with teachers in Georgia contacting reporters about risking their lives to return to the classroom and the Chicago Teachers Union launching a public social media campaign that challenges district officials to answer educators’ tough questions.  

Recent national surveys show that parents are torn between wanting to get their kids back into a normal school routine and being fearful of putting them into a situation that could make them sick or enable them to bring the virus back to vulnerable relatives. 

All of that emotion creates an environment in which an unprepared school district can end up playing communications defense or lose control of the narrative. The good news is that we understand more about the coronavirus communications landscape now than we did a few months ago and that knowledge can help districts create effective communications plans to support their reopening plans.  

Here are some things to consider from our communications work with companies hit with coronavirus issues last spring:

   ·  Stay on top of expert guidance. Keep track of evolving recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health officials and adapt your operations and communications to stay current. 

 

   ·  Understand your stakeholders and their concerns. Know their priorities and hot buttons so you can develop messaging and information that meets their needs. Identify and incorporate changes in stakeholder sentiment by conducting regular pulse-check surveys of important groups, monitoring social media posts and quickly processing direct feedback from key constituents.  

 

   · Communicate regularly. Change isn’t easy, so remind parents, students, staff and the community about steps schools are taking to prevent infection and enlist their cooperation. Share the information on the social media platforms your stakeholders use, as well as through local media and school websites, newsletters, e-mail outreach and on-campus materials. Share information about safe practices at home to help mitigate a potential spread to schools. 

 

   ·  Figure out what could go wrong and develop a communications framework to respond. Brainstorm the scenarios most likely to interfere with your new-normal operating plan and have draft communications responses ready to go, so you can quickly adapt, finalize and execute. That includes preparing for the possibility of high infection rates and rapid closures—and communicating plans in advance so everyone can be prepared to adapt quickly.

 

    ·  Shape the narrative. In addition to media materials, prepare your spokespersons to talk about reopening plans and contingencies and answer difficult questions. There’s a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 and it’s critical that you have effective spokespersons who can respond with credibility and clarity in an emotionally and politically charged environment.

 

  · Ask for helpA pandemic is an extraordinary situation with significant pressure, so it’s important to work with professionals who have experience dealing with and communicating about COVID-19.