While the article below applies to most states, we understand that there is less clarity on the availability and application of ESSER funds in others. This is the case in our home state of Wisconsin, where federal funding is currently at risk due to the actions of the Joint Committee on Finance.
The latest U.S. Department of Education guidance offers clarity on how school districts can use the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund to communicate with families, staff and students—specifically around the return to school in fall 2021.
Districts may apply ESSER funds to ongoing communications and community outreach, as well as translation and interpretation services. The funds can also cover surveys to allow districts to better understand stakeholders’ perceptions, needs and concerns.
A successful school reopening strategy requires engaging the entire school community, including families of underserved students and parents of students with disabilities or local special education advisory committees. It also means engaging all stakeholders to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and staff at a time when COVID-19 remains a factor.
This guidance provides a path for school districts to create and implement comprehensive, equity-focused communication strategies around their return-to-school plans.
Looking ahead, this summer is a great time to ramp up school communication efforts and ensure families, staff, students and community members have the information they need ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
As a reminder, the Donovan Group has provided free templates and guidance to help educational leaders communicate during this challenging time in education.
Last spring, we covered creative ideas to celebrate graduating seniors at a time when nearly all schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While many schools and districts have now returned to full in-person instruction, others continue to use hybrid models or fully virtual models.
This post features some ideas for celebrating graduating seniors at a time when social distancing still remains necessary.
Live-streaming graduation ceremonies
Although most high schools are holding some type of in-person commencement ceremony, These events may come with attendance restrictions to allow for ample social distancing. For friends and family members unable to attend the in-person event, schools and districts can use live-streaming platforms to give them the ability to watch from a distance.
The ceremony can be streamed live online on Vimeo, Facebook or YouTube—as well as on local TV stations, in some cases. It can also be worthwhile to provide each graduating senior with a copy of the video and post the video to YouTube so that families can watch again in the future.
Social media celebrations
Last spring, Iowa’s Storm Lake Community School District created a cool social media template to highlight each member of the Class of 2020. Below is an example. Each day, the district posted to Facebook and Twitter a customized version of this graphic for each student. The same can be done this year to complement a limited in-person ceremony.
To make this happen, district staff reached out to students’ families, asking for a photo of when they were young and a more recent photo (usually a senior picture). Between the two images, the student provides a short reflection of what they’ve learned during their K-12 academic careers.
Many schools are working with the local news media to publicly celebrate the accomplishments of seniors in new ways. This can take the form of a daily or weekly “Senior Shoutout,” through which a local media outlet can take a few seconds to share an achievement or a fun fact about a member of the Class of 2021.
Here’s an example from a TV affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina:
Lawn signs honoring graduates
Many schools have been providing seniors with lawn signs to display in their yards or windows each spring for years. This can be an especially nice gesture during our current times. Schools can make this happen with a simple design and by working with a local print shop.
We’ve even seen some businesses step up and donate these signs as part of their efforts to support their communities during COVID-19.
‘Light Up the Stadium’ events
During these brief events, schools turn on their stadium lights, with students and families invited to stay in their vehicles and take part in a demonstration of solidarity. Some have volunteers passing out popcorn and beverages, while music plays from the stadium’s PA system. The principal or another staff member may also give a brief address celebrating seniors.
One fun idea we’ve seen is lighting up the stadium for 21 minutes, from 8 to 8:21 p.m. — or 20:21 in military time. Whatever you do, just make sure everyone knows to maintain social distancing when they come to watch!
The above examples highlight just a few of the creative ways schools and districts are celebrating their graduating seniors in all new ways during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is still with us.
On Tuesday, January 26, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that most teachers, school staff and childcare providers will need to wait for several weeks to begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. While many schools and districts had expected the vaccine to be available to their staff members sooner than that, we are now hearing that it could be early March until Phase 1B takes effect.
Based on our work with districts across Wisconsin, we have put together this template message to share with staff. Please feel free to use it as you see fit, without attribution.
As always, thank you for all you are doing for the public school students and families of Wisconsin.
On January 26, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that Phase 1B of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout will include teachers, school staff, and childcare providers.
Additionally, individuals in these professions will receive priority status once we enter Phase 1B, which is expected to occur in early March. The exact timing will depend on the amount of vaccine allocated to the state over the coming weeks.
Staff members of the <DISTRICT NAME> may choose to get vaccinated at a provider of their choosing. The district will also be providing a vaccine opportunity for staff, in partnership with local healthcare providers. We will have more information on this opportunity soon.
The availability of these vaccines is incredibly exciting for our entire community. It signals the beginning of the end of the pandemic and the enormous disruptions it has caused to our daily lives. If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with underlying inequities throughout our society and across school communities, have underscored how important it is for education leaders to use regular, proactive, and transparent communications with students, families, staff, and local communities.
Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools (LAB) and national school communications firm the Donovan Group have created a new series of equity-focused communications resources to help school and district leaders nationally communicate more effectively with diverse stakeholders during these challenging times.
#EngageEquitably includes templates for emails to families and staff, website language, phone and robocall scripts, video scripts, and news releases. They address a variety of COVID-19 situations, including positive cases, health and prevention efforts, schedule changes, shifts in schools’ instructional models, and how to access school meals.
School closures lasting weeks at a time has been unlike anything parents, students, staff or community members have ever experienced.
Especially in the first several weeks of the closures, school and district leaders and teachers had to answer tough questions about e-learning, meal services, technology distribution and canceled or postponed events. This meant communicating frequently through email, social media, the district’s website, text alerts and phone calls.
While active communication provides tremendous value to stakeholders during this situation, it’s also important to consider the frequency with which you’re communicating and how much information you seek to convey at once.
After all, if you’re communicating about everything, you’re really communicating about nothing. Your messages tend to get muddled or lost completely if parents feel like they are inundated with a relentless surge of information.
Now that we know the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures are the “new normal,” at least for the time being, consider using a strategic approach to your communication that allows stakeholders to know when they can expect to hear from you and what information you will provide at certain times of the week.
Create a weekly communication roadmap
Below is a sample weekly communication roadmap for your review. The details are likely to depend on your district’s e-learning format and many other factors, but we hope it gives you a start for planning out your regular school- and district-level communication in these unusual times.
Each 5th-12th grade teacher sends an email update to students on the week’s e-learning assignments, expectations, and resources.
Each PreK-4th grade teacher sends an email update to parents on the week’s e-learning activities, assignments and resources.
Each school’s principal sends an email to all parents, providing an update on e-learning activities and any other relevant information. This message may include an anecdote regarding how staff members are meeting the needs of students from a distance.
Post shortened versions of the principals’ updates to social media to share with the broader district community.
Post a reminder message to social media about food distribution, technology access, mental health services or any other resources students and families may need.
Each classroom teacher sends an email message to students and/or parents to check in on progress and determine if any additional resources are needed.
Post an update to social media with an anecdote about how learning continues to take place in your district.
The district superintendent sends an email update to all parents, providing an update on school closures, meal services, events and other pertinent information. This message may also include anecdotes of how students are successfully learning from home.
Post the superintendent’s update in full to the district’s website, ideally on a COVID-19 specific page.
Post a shortened version of the superintendent’s update to social media to share with the broader district community.
Once you have determined your weekly communication structure, share it with your parents and other stakeholders so that they know what they can expect from you—and when. There will still be times when you must disrupt this schedule to communicate about an urgent issue, but that will be the exception rather than the rule.
Again, the above is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but we hope it gets you thinking about how you can communicate more by design on a weekly basis. The result will be greater clarity within your school community, fewer questions on the part of parents and enhanced overall trust between your district and its stakeholders.
This spring, many school boards are in the process of creating and finalizing a budget for the 2020-21 school year. This work is largely taking place via Zoom and other online meeting platforms. District leaders and board members should work to maintain transparency around the budgeting process, while speaking to how the district is planning based on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Your stakeholders may have a number of questions about how this process will work. Be ready to field and answer the following:
Has COVID-19 changed the district’s financial outlook? If so, how?
How can community members provide input into the budget process from a distance?
How is the district planning for the possibility for schools remaining closed for a period next school year? How would that affect the budget?
In these difficult times, will the district be tightening its belt and reducing costs over the next school year?
Will the district avoid raising property taxes, considering that so many people are out of work or struggling financially right now?
What to communicate
Below are some sample messages you can use to proactively communicate with families, staff members and community members about the district’s budget process:
While schools remain closed, district administration and the school board are continuing efforts to create and finalize a budget for the 2020-21 school year. By law, this process must be completed by May 15 (or whichever date is relevant to your district).
We are using Zoom to meet virtually and discuss the district’s budget. These meetings are open to the public. (Note: Be sure to provide information on how community members can find meeting schedules, agendas and minutes, as well as how to access the meetings online.)
Even though we will not meet in person, these budget meetings will be transparent and open to public comment. We encourage our community members to join us and make your voices heard during the public comment portion of the meetings.
We will continue to make the most of every single dollar our taxpayers invest in their local schools. While these are uncertain times, we will move forward in a way that protects the investments of our taxpayers and maintains high-quality educational opportunities for our students.
The sample messages above provide you with a template as you move forward. The exact messages you use may vary depending on your district’s situation, your target audience and the questions you have received.
How to communicate
Now that you have some messages to work with, it’s time to determine how you will reach your stakeholders. Below are some of the most effective ways for communicating about the district budget with your school district community:
Send an email to all district parents/guardians
Send a memo to all district staff
Distribute a news release to the local media
Write and distribute a guest article from the superintendent or board president
Post an update to social media
Create a web page with information on how community members can connect to meetings via Zoom or other virtual platforms
We are certainly living in strange times, and processes like board meetings and district budgeting will need to be handled in new ways. Determining how these processes will work and communicating your approach as quickly as possible will help ease concerns in your community and ensure the budget process is as transparent as it always is.