Now that the school year has started, some school districts still need to finalize their plans. However, even finalized plans sometimes get changed, particularly due to the uncertainty brought about by COVID-19. 

Clear communication with everyone involved from school personnel to students and families is key to successfully running operations in your school district amidst a pandemic. 

On that note, Xello recently hosted a roundtable titled, ‘District Communications: How to manage communications to ensure information is shared across your district.’

Watch Webinar: How to Ensure Seamless Communication in Your District

The roundtable panel consisted of:

Theresa Fightmaster, a K-12 Counselor Coordinator for Poudre School District in Colorado.

Anthony Cook, the Coordinator of College and Career Counseling for the School District of Osceola County in Florida.

Leah Corey, the Program Manager in the Office of College & Career Readiness for Saint Paul Public Schools.

Here are the questions we posed to the panel and here’s what they had to say. 

With so many considerations such as how and when schools will open, the safety of educators and students, and mental health and wellness to think about – how has your district approached building a plan for the fall? What should be considered to ensure you’ve covered all your bases?

The summer has been a time of widespread communication and an opportunity to create an element of certainty during a time when little of it actually exists.

Fightmaster’s school district created a tool that touched on a wide variety of topics such as health and safety, models of learning, well-being, etc.

The toolkit, which includes links to the most up to date information is accessible to students, staff, and families.

Having the information available in one place closes the gap for many people … [who are] anxious that no one knows what they’re doing since things are changing so quickly.

Similarly, Corey’s district created a set of guiding principles to help ground the decision-making process.

Cross functional working groups studied different areas such as curriculum instruction, health and safety, technology, facilities, etc. and each group worked on developing a plan to present to the community via a Board of Education meeting.

While creating their plans for the school (they will be all virtual), the district considered concerns that came up in the spring.

For example, families noted issues with navigating the LMS since each course had a different layout. Therefore, they’re introducing common instructional design for all courses, so that families and students have an easier time navigating coursework.

In Cook’s district, a taskforce was created to ensure all bases were covered for the successful reopening of schools in the fall.

A taskforce that included students, parents, medical personnel, administration, teachers, etc. developed the “ready, set, start, smart initiative” in Cook’s district.

By having so many players involved, the Florida district has been able to consider many perspectives.

The district is offering face to face learning, hybrid learning, and complete virtual learning as options to their students.

Regardless of the selection, unit plans were created to make sure all students have access to important information such as SEL components.

Watch Webinar: How to Ensure Seamless Communication in Your District

“Equity is extremely important to us,” explained Cook.

To help teachers adjust, the start of the school year was pushed back to two weeks.

The district also created a coaching academy with key people from each school throughout the district. This will help with creating a safe environment in their schools and enabling smooth transitions for teachers who are teaching virtually. 

“We’re feeling good that we will have what they need to get through this,” explained Cook. 

Can you share any contingency plans you are working on now? Perhaps there’s one area to watch out for, that we’ve not already mentioned.

In Cook’s district, they have contingency plans in case they have to make the shift to complete virtual learning.

“In case when we get back and … [the need arises], we can seamlessly shift to virtual learning,” said Cook.

We’re set up to do whatever is needed from our community.

When the plans were being considered in Fightmaster’s district, four different options on how to open school were created.

When the superintendent shared this via a letter with the community, she reminded recipients that “the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know.”

While this admittance of uncertainty might have disappointed some, Fightmaster praised this approach.

I appreciate the humility in saying we’re doing our best but let’s remain flexible and graceful.

So, plans will have to be molded and shaped throughout the year as the circumstances change. 

How will you be communicating plans to ensure educators are being kept up to date on what’s happening?

When rules and regulations seem to be updated or changed regularly, it’s important to keep the relevant parties informed. 

The standard practice in Cook’s district is to have a weekly meeting during the summer. During the school year, departments meet every Wednesday. In terms of the meeting that Cook leads, participants in the meeting are encouraged to make comments during the week which he uses to set the agenda for the meeting.

As far as communicating with the media, the district uses their website and the Remind app which sends texts to specific groups of students

In Corey’s district, they are also utilizing their typical tools – social media and website – as well as standard practices including weekly communications.

They also have monthly meetings which are now virtual.

The superintendent at Corey’s district also has had virtual townhalls to increase transparency with the wider community and staff. 

“We also need to be mindful of inundating people during this time of anxiety [and therefore] not sending too much,” cautioned Fightmaster.

It can be exhausting to receive, as well as produce, constant communication. How are you balancing your communications to ensure educators remain engaged and do not burn out?

In these days when information is being put out in excess, survival is not dependent upon being the fittest but depends on balance.  Avoiding burnout, according to the panel, means leaning on each other.

“Collegial support is super important,” said Corey, when discussing how to find balance.

She gave an example of collegial support at her school. 

“Some staff at our district are tech savvy while others need support. Among the tech savvy is a group of counselors, and they emerged to provide support for one or more of their colleagues. They helped to distill the information into palatable chunks making it easier for those who needed help to digest. And this all happened organically,” she said. 

“I’m hoping this sort of thing will carry forward,” added Corey. 

As a leader, Cook believes he needs to be a gatekeeper when it comes to distilling information. He gets lots of information and strives to filter out what needs to be delivered. This can be quite challenging.

“I have a list of so many things that I need to tell them, but I have to figure out what are the essential items that need to be addressed,” he said. 

What resources and tools can you share with our audience that can help them with their planning for the fall?

Our panel is using a few technical tools. 

As a Microsoft Suite District, Cook has been using Padlet and also has meeting agendas and links to resources referenced in meetings available for colleagues.  

On the district website, they have roadmaps to guide teachers, administrators and parents towards information they may be looking for. There’s also a section entitled, ‘Let’s Talk,’ where the community can post questions. As per the Superintendent’s expectation of a timely response, those questions receive responses within 24 hours.

Corey’s district has been using pulse surveys to gauge current concerns and challenges.

We’ve received a higher response rate than in the past, which has made the surveys a useful tool to inform senior leadership. They intend to continue using them this school year.

Before we open it up for questions, do you have any final advice or key learnings you’d like to share?

Each of the panelists encouraged educators not to lose sight of the bigger picture despite the challenges going on.

“We’ve used the strategic plan as an anchor to support decision making to ensure we are pushing towards our student outcomes and goals while also recognizing we are in the midst of an emotionally intense situation,” said Corey.

“Don’t lose sight of the influence you can have,” added Fightmaster.

While you don’t have to solve every problem, those comforting type of words such as, ‘I hear you,’ can go a long way.

In other words, it’s all about communication. So, get ready for the fall school year. Remember, clear communication and flexibility will go a long way in making this school year a positive one.

Watch Webinar: How to Ensure Seamless Communication in Your District

Osceola County School District Resources

Check out these resources used by Cook’s district to streamline their communications:

ABOUT LARRY

Larry is an experienced educator having taught at both the K-12 and post high school level. Outside of the classroom, Larry is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on edtech and general education topics.