In this episode of the We Love Schools podcast, hosts Carole Dorn-Bell and Joel Gagne discuss how schools are coping with the coronavirus and what communication looks like amid the pandemic.

Things are changing extremely quickly in this crisis situation and it’s difficult to plan ahead.

“When we talk with school districts, we say it’s okay to tell your community these words: ‘We don’t know.’ Because we don’t,” Joel says.

We don’t know when schools are going to reopen, and we don’t know how we’re going to proceed as we continue to navigate the pandemic. All districts can do is take this crisis day by day, work as hard as they possibly can and continue to provide the best value given the circumstances.

Carole says the first takeaway is that communication matters. If people were not aware of the importance of communication for school districts before, it should be quite obvious now.

“It’s got to be on the front end of everything you do,” Carole says.

Schools need to have all the infrastructure in place for crisis situations such as the coronavirus pandemic. Do you have social media channels, email, telephone in place? When it comes to COVID-19 and communication, all communication channels need to be utilized.

“That is the number one question when I step in to work with any entity,” Carole says. “How, if you had to reach people in a pinch, are you doing it?”

Coronavirus has really exposed that need, so now is the time to take stock of the communication channels that are in place. Either districts have that communication infrastructure already or they only have pieces and parts or they have precious little. If you don’t have certain things in place, you’ve got to build upon it to communicate effectively.

Similar to diversifying a retirement account with a financial adviser, schools need to emphasize diversity in their communications. They can’t be relying on one platform or one method such as Facebook, Twitter or mail—it has to be a combination of communication channels.

The second key takeaway is that school districts should be reaching non-parents. Many community members are not following the school’s social media, so you need to meet them where they are. Non-parents are still taxpayers and people who are underwriting the school district, so if you want to maintain a level of credibility with the community as a whole you need to be able to explain the value proposition in what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

As we navigate through COVID-19 and communication amid this crisis, you’ve got to be really careful. You’ve got to be able to communicate that this period has not been a time off for schools and their staff. We might not be working in a building, but we are all working and we’re providing value for the children of this community. In reality, teachers have had to retool their entire curriculum so that they can teach remotely. They have to reach kids who are in a variety of situations at home, including perhaps not having internet access. Maybe the home had one computer and now the parents are working remotely. There’s a lot to think about and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got to communicate with people, especially during this time, what the education process looks like amid the pandemic.

“If they start getting in their heads, ‘why were we paying their salaries for six weeks and we got nothing for that,’ then that will snowball down the road as far as community support for your school district—and not in a good way,” Joel says.

The third thing is that tonality matters a lot, and now is not the time for certain conversations. That in no way means trying to hide anything, but it means recognizing that it’s difficult to talk about finances right now. No organization can say with any certainty what their financial future looks like.

We don’t know what’s going to happen at the federal level as far as underwriting state governments and public education goes. We don’t know how quickly things will go back to any semblance of normal. Any data that you’ve had in the past is going to be irrelevant going forward, and you’re going to need to get new data. It’s all wait and see.

For now, be careful about wording in your communication. Schools are not “closed,” there is emergency remote learning taking place. Schools shouldn’t say teachers are unable to do something because they’re “overwhelmed,” if the more accurate explanation is that not all the teachers are equipped to do so.

“Semantics matter,” Carole says. “We’ve got to be very precise in our language.”

We Love schools will continue to update as the situation progresses. In the meantime, if you want to send any listener mail our way, we’d love to hear from you.

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