Today, I co-presented a panel at the Paul J. Andrews (Virtual) Summer Executive Institute, hosted by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, on effective communication about plans to reopen schools for the 2020-21 school year. On the panel, Dr. Julie Hackett, Superintendent of Lexington Public Schools, and Peter Light, Superintendent of Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, shared their experiences and insights about leading school districts through this public health emergency. 

Some of the key points that I shared with the Superintendents who participated in the session:

  • It’s critical for school districts to communicate clearly, consistently, repeatedly, and in a variety of ways throughout the summer, leading up to the (presumed) reopening of schools. Even before your district’s re-opening plans are released or finalized, be sure to keep staff, families, students, and the community informed – through your website, social media, email, local press, and other means – about your planning process and the factors you are considering to devise a back-to-school plan. (See an earlier blog post about this topic.) 

    Be sure to publicize widely any staff or family surveys that gauge stakeholders’ readiness to return to school buildings or their preferences about options for learning models, and share the findings from these surveys. In your communications, describe your district’s comprehensive exploration of many options and scenarios, the expertise you’ve enlisted for guidance, and the data you’ve consulted, including survey results and public health indicators. These strategies are designed to build community confidence in the process by which the plans are developed, so that even those who may not agree with the results cannot criticize as easily the process that produced them.

    For an excellent example, see the Lexington Public Schools Back-to-School Blueprint, released on June 30. This preliminary plan presents a great deal of information in very accessible language, and it sets just the right tone.
  • As challenging as communication was this spring during and after the closure of school buildings, the same messages could be delivered (for the most part) to all families and staff during that period, given that every school in every Massachusetts district was closed, and everyone was expected to participate in remote teaching and learning. For many districts, the new year will require more segmented communication and messaging, particularly in districts that adopt a hybrid model (some students learning in schools, some at home), or in any district where families opt out of in-school learning altogether. Schools and districts will have to be creative in communicating along parallel tracks with whichever subset of students (by grade, program, etc.) are in school or at home on a given day, and with whichever cohorts of staff are engaged in various types of remote or in-person work.
  • The most important content to share with families may be organized into two broad categories: messages about health and safety protocols, and messages about implementation of the model, which includes schedules, in-school vs. at-home learning, transportation, and specifics about all other academic and non-academic activities.

    The first category is more universal across the entire district, with specific guidelines for students, staff, parents, and school visitors about hand washing and sanitizing, face coverings, distancing requirements, symptom screening, and more. These messages include reassurances about the steps that the district and each school is taking, such as facilities cleaning and sanitizing protocols, modifications to the layout of classrooms, cafeterias, and other spaces, and any other precautions. 

    Messaging in the second category is more complex, particularly in districts that adopt a hybrid approach. It requires families and staff to understand how students will be scheduled and organized – in some cases, with variations by grade level, program (e.g. special education), or other considerations – and may rotate by day or week. This category includes all of the other aspects of school life: transportation, athletics, enrichment, extra-curricular activities, and many others.

I shared with participants in the session three tips about messaging and three tips about the means of communication.

Messages to Communicate

First, here are three recommendations about messaging for your back-to-school plans:

  1. In all communications, maintain a sense of empathy and humanity. These are incredibly challenging times for students and adults alike, and emotions are running high, to say the least. This is a critical time for you, as Superintendent, to set a positive tone for the start of the school year. It’s essential to acknowledge that there is no perfect solution. Every scenario has pros and cons, and every strategy has trade-offs. Reassure your school community that you and the School Committee are charting a course based on the best information and guidance available, and trying to meet the needs of families, students, and staff, while ensuring the health and safety of all. Your constituents need to know that you understand and have been grappling intensely with the imperfections and limitations of virtual learning, in-person learning, or some combination of the two, and you have put forth a plan that you believe can work in your community with patience, flexibility, and cooperation from all. Whenever possible, don’t rely on the written word alone. Let families and staff see your face and hear your voice, particularly through video messages, so that your tone and demeanor shine through.
  2. Related to #1 above: Validate, even if you cannot accommodate, the full range of parent and staff preferences, fears, needs, and points of view. No matter what plans you propose, and ultimately adopt, you know that some segment of your community will be unhappy, and will likely be vocal about their objections. Like the ultimate snow-day call, your decision will not satisfy everyone. Some will demand that all students return to full-time, in-school learning. Others will insist that buildings remain closed and schools return entirely to distance learning. Many will have opinions somewhere between the two extremes. It seems important to acknowledge that every one of those viewpoints is rooted in understandable anxiety and the unique circumstances of each family’s life. No one is right or wrong – just trying to advocate for their child and their loved ones.

    To illustrate this point, I encourage you to read “Reflections of a Superintendent and Parent during the Covid-19 Crisis,” which Peter Light wrote and shared with his community in April. His point about fear underlying all reactions is particularly poignant.

  3. For districts that are not able to bring all students back to in-school learning every day: Lay out a clear, concise rationale for why this approach is not a viable option in your community. Some districts already have determined that they simply do not have the space to maintain necessary distancing with the full student body in the building. Make that point – or whatever other obstacles prevent a full return – clear in your plans, to address those who are calling for an end to distance learning in any form. If possible, outline some of the possibilities you (and perhaps your community task force) explored to use space creatively, and why those scenarios do not solve the puzzle.   

Means of Communicating

Here are three recommendations about the means of communicating about your plans:

  1. Develop a back-to-school section of your website that is well-organized, easy to navigate, and if possible, highly interactive. Regardless of which re-opening model your district adopts, there is a great deal of important information to convey to families and staff. It’s essential to organize that information in ways that make it accessible and understandable. A well-constructed section of your website, linked from the home page, with a simple URL (web address) that you can include on all materials, should serve as a clearinghouse for the latest updates and information. Be sure your “Answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” are posted prominently, arranged by topic, and kept up to date.

    Rather than expect families and staff to read and digest a long manual, posted as a PDF, find creative ways to organize the information into chunks that can be easily navigated by clicking through. Use graphical elements to make different types of information easier to navigate. Depending on the capacity in your district, you may enlist the expertise of both a web developer and a graphic designer. While one may have the technical skills needed to take advantage of the interactive features of your web platform, the other may have the design skills to create attractive graphics, icons, and other visual elements. If time permits, ask a small group of parents and staff to test the site and offer feedback on both content and usability.

  2. Leverage social media to reinforce smaller chunks of information, particularly in visual formats. You will, of course, use the district’s Facebook, Twitter, or other platforms to direct members of your community to the back-to-school landing page for the latest news, updates, announcements, and developments. Social media can also be a powerful tool for sharing individual pieces of information, such as tips and reminders to help families and staff cooperate fully with your district’s re-opening plan. For example, your posts may feature reminders about important health and safety protocols, such as symptom screening, hand-washing, and requirements for distancing and face coverings. Or posts may remind readers about alternating schedules in hybrid models, such as, “Remember, tomorrow is the start of a Green Week,” with a link to a web page that clearly depicts who is learning from home or in school during that week. A single question and answer from your FAQ document also can stand alone as a social media post. 

    Rather than relying solely on words, design creative posts that attract the eye with compelling graphics. Even posts that do not have an obvious visual component can be made into colorful graphics that feature your message in words and images, using simple, free design tools like Remember that posts containing photos and videos always have much higher engagement rates than those that are text-only.

  3. Keep the local media engaged in the process. Don’t wait for reporters from your local newspapers and radio stations to reach out to you with questions about your back-to-school plans. Be proactive, and have a clear plan for engaging the press from now through the opening of school. Remember that these outlets can be effective tools for disseminating your core messages to a wider audience (including, for example, particular language groups via radio stations). Ask the editor of the local newspaper if you can submit a guest op-ed (typically 600-900 words), laying out some of the most important messages for the entire community to understand.

    To make your press outreach more efficient, consider hosting one or more press briefings at various points in the process, and invite all of the outlets that typically cover your district. At the briefing, provide an update on your planning process for school reopening, and share the factors, data, and expertise that have guided your work. You may host this sort of briefing virtually, but if your plan involves a return to some in-person learning, you might consider hosting the briefing in a school (with masks and distancing required, of course), to reinforce the message that you are starting to prepare the community to return safely to school buildings. In that case, you could show reporters a “pre-Covid” and “post-Covid” classroom, to demonstrate how you are arranging spaces differently to minimize the health risks for students and staff. 

Here’s one additional tip:

  • Keep language and terminology consistent across all schools in the district. For example, if your district will organize students into clusters that remain together throughout the school day to minimize the risk of transmission, refer to those clusters (or pods, teams, etc.) using the same terminology in every school, so that it will have universal meaning and understanding in district-wide communications. The same is true for schedules: Note that in Lexington’s proposed hybrid plan, students across all levels would alternate between Blue Weeks (remote learning) and Gold Weeks (in-person learning), named after the district’s color scheme. If each school were to adopt its own name for those weeks, it would be nearly impossible for the district to communicate clearly across all schools, and would add to the confusion for families with students in more than one school.

Visit other districts’ websites to get ideas and models for your own communications. Here are a few from other states that are worth noting:

If your district needs consulting support to help with your back-to-school communications, please contact me.