The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the importance of communicating clearly and effectively with families, students, staff and school communities.
That’s why we are excited to move forward with an effort to promote honest, transparent, equitable and public health-informed communication in response to COVID-19 resurgence and incidence in schools.
Today, the Donovan Group and Brooklyn Laboratory Charter Schools, together with several key partners, have launched www.EngageEquitably.org. This resource includes a robust set of communication templates to help educational leaders communicate about a variety of situations that may arise during these challenging times.
The templates include emails to families and staff, website language, phone or robocall scripts, video scripts, and news releases that address topics like positive COVID-19 cases, health and prevention, school scheduling, instruction and school meals. They also cover specific situations, such as closing a classroom or section of a school and communicating instructional changes for students with special needs. Over time and as circumstances demand, these templates will grow and expand.
We encourage educational leaders, district and school administrators, and school board members to use these free resources and customize them for their school communities.
Earlier this year, Joe Donovan and I had the privilege of writing an article (“Prepare For Tomorrow’s Crisis Today”) for an edition of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s monthly magazine.
Like you, we’ve been so busy that we didn’t get around to sharing it with you until now! We’ve all been living in some level of crisis mode since the pandemic began in March.
As a national leader in crisis communications for schools and districts, the Donovan Group has been on the front lines of the response to COVID-19 school closures and planning for the return to school this fall. We’ve created a free communications tool kit and a wide range of templates that hundreds of schools and districts have leveraged to prepare for fall instruction and plan for the many contingencies that could take place due to the pandemic.
The Donovan Group is a proud crisis communications partner with PSBA, the California School Boards Association, the Delaware School Boards Association, the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators and the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance.
The start of the 2020-21 school year—in its myriad forms—presents a perfect storm. There are many points of tension, including how the school year should look and whether districts should implement virtual or in-person learning—or a combination of the two. There are serious concerns about health and safety, uncertainties related to how COVID-19 affects children and the stress and worry parents feel when attempting to balance work and childcare needs.
All this leads to significant turbulence within school district communities.
Preparing for school crisis situations
While the pandemic has likely demanded your non-stop attention as a school or district leader, it is not too early to prepare for the next crisis situation. While COVID-19 could be the most serious situation you will ever need to address, it likely won’t be the last urgent or crisis situation that will require your attention.
When a crisis arises in your school district, take the following steps to address the situation and communicate clearly and effectively:
Gather the facts: Before you do anything, gather all of the known facts. Get dates, times, locations and names. Journalists refer to this as the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Get this information as quickly as you can and write it all down for future reference.
Prioritize your contacts: Next, determine with whom you should communicate and when. This can be more difficult than you might think. In fact, in the heat of a crisis, it can feel overwhelming. There are generally two tiers of communication that need to take place during and after a crisis situation. Tier I communications are those that must happen right away. Tier II communications, while still important, can take place in the hours or days after the situation.
Line up your team: Every superintendent should have at least one other trusted colleague who can assist in managing a school crisis situation. Ideally, there are three or four people who can be ready to help right away. If you have a district-based communications office or coordinator, or you work with a communications consultant, involve them from the start.
A crisis situation like COVID-19 can offer an opportunity to build trust with your school community. You can better communicate the good news coming out of schools while taking preventive steps to keep crises or negative stories from eroding public confidence and support.
We see video as an excellent way to showcase the amazing work your schools and districts are doing, especially during these unprecedented times. Take a look at some of the return-to-school videos we have helped to script, film and produce for school districts across the country.
Ideally, the hard work you have put into your district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last few months has been recognized in your community. Parents and students in particular have relied on your leadership. By effectively managing your district’s response to the pandemic and other crisis situations, you build goodwill and trust that will pay dividends over time.
Liam Goldrick is an associate with the Donovan Group.
The spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, is at the forefront of many people’s minds across the United States. While the news is concerning for all of us, parents and guardians are especially worried about how their children will be affected if the virus hits their local schools.
School and district leaders should be preparing for all possibilities, including the need to call off school for an extended period of time at some point over the next several weeks or months. Now is also a good time to communicate with your stakeholders about how the school district is preparing and how everyone can play a role in preventing the spread of the coronavirus and other illnesses.
At this time, we recommend communicating some key messages and talking points with your parents/guardians, staff and students related to coronavirus:
1. The school district is closely monitoring the situation and is making the necessary preparations in case the COVID-19 becomes more prevalent in our community. For now, there have been no indications of an coronavirus outbreak, but that could change as time goes on.
2. We all play a role in reducing the likelihood of a coronavirus outbreak in our school district community. We encourage everyone to practice good habits, including:
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after using the restroom and before preparing or consuming food. Wash for 20 seconds, using soap and hot water. Be sure to also wash your fingertips.
- Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hands or in the air. Always try to cough or sneeze into a tissue, and then throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue, cough/sneeze into your arm.
- As much as you can, avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose.
- If children are feeling sick, please keep them home from school. Allow them some time to feel better so that they do not risk infecting others.
3. We will continue to communicate with you in the days and weeks to come. It is possible that we may need to cancel classes if it appears the coronavirus has affected our community in a significant way.
4. As always, the safety of our students, staff and families remains our top priority. We will act out an abundance of caution to protect everyone’s health and wellbeing.
We have found that the most effective way to communicate this information is through emails or letters home to parents, staff emails, text alerts and PA announcements at school. You may also use the messages above to provide statements to the local media. We’ve seen that many reporters are looking to “localize” this story, seeking comment from school district leaders about how they are preparing for COVID-19.
Learn more by visiting our Coronavirus Communications page. If you would like further guidance on how you can best communicate about coronavirus in your school or district, contact the Donovan Group.
In several of the states we serve, last week was especially difficult for students, parents, staff and others in light of the various threats and instances of school violence that have taken place.
When something terrible happens in a school or in our larger community, or when a threat is made, the action ripples like a wave. It moves through the community in which it took place, and onto the region, the state and, often, across the country.
In some cases, this wave manifests itself in fear. In others, it’s a dull feeling of unease and discomfort. That unease feels as if it is part of us. It is difficult to shake.
To this day, when I enter a movie theater, my mind flashes back to the terrible news of the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, way back in 2012. I have to convince myself that I am safe. As much as I have tried over the years, I cannot shake that uneasy feeling.
I believe the same is true when we hear of tragedies in schools. Once again, that feeling of unease swept across the states and into our consciousness as we digested the terrible news.
This week, that wave of fear became very personal to me. On her way to school the morning after learning of school violence in another district, my high school-aged daughter texted me a message I would reflect on every day since: “Will I be safe today?”
That question is certainly on the minds of millions of students, parents, staff members and other community members. In these difficult times, ensure you are communicating with your school district community about efforts to keep your schools safe. Do not be afraid to also acknowledge the fear that comes as a result of the news of school violence elsewhere.
Perhaps most importantly, show your heart. Share difficult conversations you have with your own children or other loved ones about these difficult subjects.
Unfortunately, there will likely be more instances of school violence in the future. As a school leader, it is important to show your school community not only that you take these issues seriously, but that you also share their unease.
Joe Donovan is president of the Donovan Group.
As a school or district leader, you never want to encounter a crisis situation. A select few are fortunate to go years without needing to handle a major crisis in their schools. But it’s a near certainty that, at some point in your career, you’ll need to engage in swift communications in response to a school crisis issue.
Please note that when we refer to a “school crisis,” we mean any issue that requires urgent communication. This can be anything from the simply unfortunate to the truly tragic.
When a crisis does arise, you’ll most often learn about it via a phone call, the police or the news media. Below are three important steps to take when managing a school crisis:
1. Gather the facts
Before you do anything, you must gather all the known facts. Get dates, times, locations and names. Journalists refer to this as the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Get this information as quickly as you can and write it all down for future reference.
Determine who else knows about the situation and find out if anyone has called the police. If so, get the officer’s name and contact information.
As you gather facts, double-check everything and ask for clarification on any gaps in your information. When you’re comfortable you have what you need, write down the time and date of when you received the information, along with how and who you got it from.
2. Prioritize your contacts
Next, determine with whom you should communicate and when. This can be more difficult than you might think. In fact, in the heat of a crisis, it can feel overwhelming.
There are generally two tiers of communication that need to take place during and after a crisis situation. Tier I communications are those that must happen right away. Tier II communications, while still important, can take place in the hours or days after the situation.
Below is a list of individuals and groups with whom you may need to communicate. Determine who you need to reach now (Tier I) and who you can communicate to in the next several hours or tomorrow (Tier II).
- The local police
- Involved parents
- Involved staff
- The school district’s attorney
- School board members
- Other parents in the school
- Other staff in the school
- Other district parents
- Other district staff
- Other community members
- State department of education or public instruction
- The news media
- Your key communicators network (if you have one)
Once you’ve determined to whom you should communicate, consider the following questions to help you determine when you should reach out:
- Who do I need to contact this minute?
- Who do I need to contact in the next ten minutes?
- Who do I need to contact in the next half hour?
- Who do I need to contact in the next hour?
- Who do I need to contact in the morning or later in the day?
- Who do I need to contact in the next two days?
Take a deep breath and double-check your list. The person you need to contact this minute, in the next 10 minutes and in the next half-hour are contacts you will likely make by phone. Make the calls now and keep a record of all the conversations you have.
3. Line up your team
Every superintendent or administrator should have at least one other trusted colleague who can assist in managing a school crisis situation. Ideally, this would be three or four people who can be ready to help right away.
Specifically, these are people who can help with the Tier II communications noted above. They may help draft letters to parents and staff and field calls from the media.
Having trusted colleagues ready to assist with managing a school crisis situation is critical for two reasons. First, Tier I communications, tend to take up a lot of time. This is especially true if you must work with the police.
Second, school and district leaders often underestimate the mental and emotional energy that communicating during a crisis takes. Having others assist you during this tough time can reduce the stress these situations tend to cause.
Planning for a crisis situation
Perhaps the biggest challenge of managing a school crisis is the fact that these situations usually come out of nowhere. Therefore, it’s wise to prepare for a possible crisis by lining up your team of communicators ahead of time and making sure everyone knows what to do when one of these issues arises in your school or district.
If you would like help with a crisis situation or would like to learn more about crisis communication planning, please call us at 800-317-7147 or contact us online.
I am writing to share some exciting news about the Donovan Group.
I started the firm 10 years ago with the hope of leveraging what I knew about education and communications to provide communications-related consulting to public school districts in Wisconsin. As the company grew, we added two more services: administrative coaching and, with the launch of our sister company ProPRcopy in 2010, content development.
The Donovan Group now serves schools and districts from offices in Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, and is the largest education-focused communications firm in the country.
Among the most significant challenges facing school district leaders is the handling of crisis situations. These situations—from the merely embarrassing to the truly tragic—require quick, accurate communication with parents, community members, board members and the media. This is an area in which even experienced K-12 leaders require assistance. It is also one of the areas in which we believe we’ve provided great value over the years.
We have worked with districts in Wisconsin through our statewide arrangement with the state superintendents’ association, WASDA, and the principals’ association, AWSA, to provide 24/7/365 crisis communications counsel and custom talking points, parent letters, news releases and other written content for school crisis communication.
I am pleased to announce that we have scaled up and are going national.
Today, we will formally launch the first-ever national public school crisis communication service. Districts that become Donovan Group Crisis Communication members will have the peace of mind that comes from having 24/7/365 access to crisis communications services, including:
- A hotline staffed by the experienced Donovan Group team
- Live crisis communications counsel by phone and email, delivered by skilled crisis communications professionals
- Custom talking points, parent letters, news releases and other written content, as needed
For the next six months, this offer will be available exclusively to organizations or firms that can provide this service, on a sponsored basis, to every public school district in one or more states. After the initial six months, we will sell the service to individual districts in those states not being sponsored.
You may find more information on our new national school crisis communication service at www.donovan-group.com/crisis.
We are thrilled that, through this new service, public school leaders across the United States will have the same top-notch crisis communications services currently provided by the Donovan Group through our relationship with WASDA and AWSA.
As always, I would like to thank you for your support of the Donovan Group and of me personally over the years. I am so very grateful.
Joe Donovan, President