Messaging During the Recess of COVID-19
BY MICHAEL MITTELMAN/School Administrator, May 2021

AS DIFFICULT AS 2020 was, the past few months have brought signs of hope with coronavirus vaccinations that will help our lives return to normal. With all the safety measures schools put in place last fall to ensure students could continue their schooling, it’s tempting to look at vaccines as a sign that school administrators can now pay less attention to communication and return to normal operations.

However, the months ahead will require schools to continue providing regular, detailed and compelling communication to families, staff, faculty and community stakeholders. The following principles might be worth considering.

»Refresh the plan. It’s already clear this pandemic will end gradually rather than at the flick of a switch. That pace will result in a set of new scenarios to prepare for that are much different than the ones considered last fall.

How does a school communicate about the continuing use of masks and social distancing guidelines as students gradually receive a vaccine? Does a school start the academic year next fall with a set of procedures different than those the community is familiar with? How should schools address the question of whether faculty and staff need to receive the vaccine?

School leaders should look at their communication plan now and consider what new scenarios they may encounter to save time and effort when those situations arise.

»Give careful thought to core messages. Administrators need to be sure their communication projects confidence, thoughtfulness and empathy, both for those who are ready to resume normal life and those who may have more anxiety about doing so. These messages should include enough detailed information to be actionable for faculty, staff and families but not so “in the weeds” they cause confusion or anxiety.

Once the messages are developed, administrators should practice delivering them so they feel natural in any setting, including Q&A sessions or parent meetings.

»Realize that going back to “normal” will look different. Out of the necessity to communicate during the pandemic, many schools have conditioned their communities to expect a regular cadence of detailed communication. The desire to be kept informed will continue long after the pandemic is over, which will require an intentional communication strategy for school leadership teams.

One recommended practice is to perform a communications audit to assess all the various methods of communication an organization uses with its various stakeholders. Performing such an assessment will help schools plan how to effectively communicate with the community on a sustained and ongoing basis.

»Get ready for COVID’s aftereffects. As COVID-19 gradually recedes, there will be new issues to address that will require skillful communication. The community will want to know whether any learning gaps have developed because of operational changes during the COVID era and the plan for addressing them.

Separately, the next round of contract negotiations with teachers’ unions may look different because of new demands inspired by the pandemic. Getting ready for the unexpected will help administrators as they undoubtedly face new challenges.

This is certainly a time to be optimistic, but it’s also important to be realistic. The challenges schools faced last fall are quickly being replaced by new demands. While the game looks to be changing, the rules are the same — clear and effective communication will continue to play a key role in how leadership keeps the school community moving together in the same direction.

is a managing director at Finsbury Glover Hering, a strategic communications firm in New York, N.Y. Twitter: @MikeMittelman