Donovan Group Insights

Emerging from the Pandemic with Community Support

Public schools have been through a lot over the past two years. District leaders have witnessed firsthand how the COVID-19 pandemic has altered modes of learning, teaching, and communication with stakeholders. Many districts have had their ability to deliver quality public education through their usual approaches tested by the pandemic, and have had to adapt and innovate in order to maintain focus on their highest strategic priorities.

With the pandemic now largely behind us, school communities have largely returned to a reality that’s almost identical to pre-pandemic times. But although students and staff are back in school, things still feel different in many ways. One of the biggest is that, in many communities, the makeup of engaged stakeholders has changed significantly.

Before the pandemic, it was largely your closest stakeholders—namely teachers and the parents of students—who shared their input on how board members are running the district. In this post-pandemic era, more community members are voicing their thoughts about district operations. COVID-19 put a brighter spotlight on public education, and district leaders are getting mixed reviews from their stakeholders, regardless of whether they’re closely connected to the schools.

For this reason, even with the pandemic in the rearview mirror, communication with stakeholders remains a delicate balancing act. District leaders must keep stakeholders happy while still prioritizing doing what’s best for students. The reality is, there will always be differences of opinion among stakeholders, and these differences become even more apparent during crises such as a pandemic.

One effective way to develop trust and confidence with stakeholders in the school district is to examine communication efforts that worked in the past. While things have changed, much of what has worked historically can still work today.

The solution lies in the past

As public schools emerge from the pandemic, it’s understandable that district leaders want to move forward as quickly as possible. After everything students, parents, and staff have been through, many embrace the opportunity to return to their normal lives and routine. However, we can’t pretend the past two years didn’t happen. The pandemic lingers in everyone’s minds, and communicating with stakeholders to re-establish a sense of normalcy and stability is still of the utmost importance.

District leaders may find the best way to move forward is by looking back at communication strategies that worked during pre-pandemic times. Elements of day-to-day operations might have changed, but the way you communicate with stakeholders remains largely the same. Letters, surveys, open houses, and social media updates are some of your most valuable tools during and after a crisis. They will allow you to keep stakeholders informed and build those all-important relationships.

District leaders should also consider how often they communicate with stakeholders. Big changes call for more communication, not less. Many leaders tend to shy away from broaching sensitive topics for fear of backlash in their communities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example demonstrating how honest, transparent, and thoughtful your district can be. A lot has changed these past couple years, but what should never change is your effort to engage stakeholders on a consistent basis.

Lean into your community

It’s clear that communication is key to moving forward from the pandemic. But more importantly, district leaders must pinpoint who exactly they’re communicating with. The first stakeholders that come to mind are probably students, staff, and parents. They certainly deserve a prime spot in your communication efforts, but you’ll also have to think outside the school walls. For many district leaders, addressing the pandemic was a wake-up call regarding the importance of extending communication efforts to the community at large.

The support of the 80% is crucial during times of change. These are the people who aren’t directly tied to your schools, such as non-parents, civic groups, business owners, elected officials, and so on. Communication efforts need to target these individuals because, unlike students and their parents, community members are less likely to be in the loop about all the amazing things schools are doing to bounce back from the pandemic. Your district has a story to tell, and it’s worth sharing with the broader community.

The most involved stakeholders tend to think highly of their school districts. It takes more effort to win the approval of community members who don’t have children in the district. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—they simply have fewer reasons to read up on the latest updates from your schools. Engaging the overall community helps people see the value in their local school district. This helps boost public perception, which comes in handy when addressing sensitive topics and situations.

Strategies for boosting community support

Needing to win the community’s support is nothing new. Community engagement is always a top priority, and the ways you engaged stakeholders before the pandemic are still effective to this day.

Keep these concepts in mind as your district works to garner community support as it emerges from the pandemic:

  • Spread the good news: District leaders should remain transparent about how they’re responding to new challenges, whether pandemic-related or not. However, that doesn’t mean your communications have to discuss all serious topics, all the time. Help the community view your schools in a positive light by sharing events, achievements, and success stories happening throughout the district. Post short video clips of students and teachers describing what they like most about their schools. A history of positive messaging helps community members think highly of your district and feel a sense of trust in district leaders during and after crisis situations.
  • Encourage feedback: District leaders are more likely to win community support when they open two-way lines of communication. Stakeholders form more favorable opinions of their school districts when board members make an effort to listen to what they have to say. Invite the community to give their input through surveys, focus groups, open houses, and meetings with the principal and other staff. Use their feedback to guide your district’s decisions in this post-pandemic era.
  • Promote the district’s strategies: Your district’s words and actions should always be guided by your strategic priorities. Think about your district’s strategic aims, and keep them front of mind as you work to address situations and crises. Community members tend to support school districts that appear to be thoughtfully, professionally, and confidently working toward defined goals. Define the district’s strategic priorities, and make sure your communications always come back to how the district’s actions are working to achieve them.

As the pandemic draws to a close, brighter days lie ahead for public schools across the country. Still, a crisis of this magnitude is bound to have raised some concerns among stakeholders around how their district responds to challenges and setbacks. They want to know their school district is taking the necessary measures to keep people safe while still providing the best education possible and keeping district priorities top of mind. Seek school community support to garner the confidence your district needs to head into the future.

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