This fall’s back-to-school season is like no other the U.S. has ever seen. Many colleges across the country have welcomed students back to campus -- only to go entirely virtual or send them packing for home a few weeks later. As COVID-19 cases spike at college campuses, K-12 school openings are also halting, with many schools letting parents know at the last minute that school will be remote during the first few weeks, at least.
All of this means a communications minefield for education institutions that will likely last the entire school year. Preparing now will help schools better navigate their communications challenges. Here are four things education communications professionals need to make a priority this year:
Being anything but transparent and blocking communication from parents, students or other stakeholders is exactly the wrong thing to do during this pandemic. While the nature of the questions are all difficult - Will my child be safe at college? Should we test children for COVID-19 before they begin school? Is the air safe enough? - Everyone deserves the truth. As a parent, I've experienced first-hand administrators telling parents not to call, email or reach out to school officials and teachers after bombshell emails go out. That type of stance sends the absolute wrong message. People’s health, livelihoods and lives are at stake. Appoint and media train key spokespeople, build FAQs, and have those difficult conversations with your community before news or communications are issued. Your reputation depends on it.
The best way to avoid or simply manage and mitigate a crisis is to make a plan before the crisis actually happens. Currently, most education organizations have a high potential for crisis during the 2020-2021 school year. Does your school have a policy on disclosing COVID-19 cases in students and teachers? Do you have a plan to send an entire student body back home to finish out the year remote? This type of information should be planned ahead of time, with key spokespeople involved in the planning and ready to act if the circumstances arise in order to keep schools and communities informed and healthy. Many colleges are tracking COVID-19 cases on public-facing dashboards and the New York Times is tracking all college cases here.
It’s crucial to monitor social media and breaking news not only for information and mentions about your own institution, but about COVID-19 and cases in general. This year, there are new mandates and processes every day, with hopeful updates about vaccine timing. However, make sure your team has a social media escalation and crisis plan in place. The last thing you want is to get bombarded on social media from students, parents and journalists without a plan in place on how to respond.
All universities and K-12 institutions must be thinking about reaching all students in an equitable manner when it comes to access to remote learning, supplemental learning and devices. The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the massive equity issues in our education system, from early education all the way to higher education institutions. All schools must be aware of the issue and have a plan on how to reach all students moving forward.