Several years ago, I wrote about 7 Tips for Effective Back-to-School Messaging to help school and district leaders set the right tone for the new school year. As we embark on what is expected to be the most “normal” school opening since 2019, it is more important than ever to kick off the year with energy and optimism.
We are all eager to declare that we now live in a post-Covid world, as the pandemic continues to wane. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control announced revised operational guidelines for K-12 schools to support safe in-person learning. Most States are relaxing many of the protocols that have been in place related to masks, testing, quarantining, and vaccines, as we saw here in Massachusetts this week. Across the country, there is a collective sigh of relief that the school year can begin without the constant disruption of Covid mitigation strategies.
At the same time, we know that Covid has not been eradicated. While the data about decreases in illness and hospitalization are encouraging, the U.S. is reporting an average of more than 100,000 infections per day, and 300-400 Covid-related deaths every day. As a result, some school districts – including Philadelphia and Maryland’s Prince George’s County – are beginning the year with mask mandates.
With this context in mind, here are some additional tips for effective back-to-school messaging this year:
- Be explicit with families and staff about your Covid mitigation strategies. It’s not helpful to pretend Covid has disappeared. Even if your district has rescinded all mitigation strategies, it’s important to make that clear to families and staff before the first day of school. If you don’t want your broader back-to-school letter to be weighed down by talk of Covid, consider a separate letter that spells out the district’s protocols and expectations for masks, testing, vaccination, and other key points.
- Address those who are still anxious about the virus. The reality is that some of your students, families, and staff remain very concerned about the virus – particularly those who are medically fragile or have a vulnerable loved one living at home. In schools where masks are optional, remind the community that some adults and children will continue to wear masks for personal reasons, and that no one should be questioned or harassed for their choices. Use social media to reinforce this critical message.
- Remember that there’s a new virus in town. The monkeypox virus is quickly replacing Covid-19 as the foremost public health issue. Many of your families and staff undoubtedly are anxious about the risk of transmission and will have questions about how schools are responding to the outbreak. Check with your state and local public health agencies for the latest guidance, and keep your school communities informed about developments and protocols.
A new school year presents tremendous opportunities to address your community with powerful messages of opportunity and possibility. As with any communication, it is possible – in fact, essential – to strike a balance between a rousing pep talk and sobering but reassuring messages about more difficult topics.