3 Tips for Effective School-Emergency Communications

Forest Smith

Originally published in eSchool News – January 9, 2018

It’s no secret that Americans experienced more than our fair share of natural disasters in recent months. Wildfires razed entire neighborhoods in California. Hurricane Maria decimated entire regions of Puerto Rico. The event that impacted my world was Hurricane Harvey. The deadly storm dealt its mighty blow right as the new school year got underway.

I was still new to my position, having served as the Head of School at Texas Online Preparatory School (TOPS) for just four weeks. Floodwaters rendered students and their teachers disconnected. As a school leader, I’m accustomed to dealing with emergencies. But little did I know this event would inspire a whole new playbook!

While few things during disasters tend to go perfectly, I’m extremely proud that, thanks to our school’s virtual format, TOPS remained opened and served our students well during the hurricane and subsequent floods. Learning continued for students and, in the process, provided families with a sense of normalcy during the crisis. Here are three best practices about effective communications that may be helpful for other school leaders when emergencies strike.

1. Target your communications. Prior to Hurricane Harvey, during severe weather, our school staff tended to issue emails to all school students and families. The problem with this approach is that many families are saturated with information they don’t need. Our K12-powered online school serves families throughout the entire Lone Star state, and Texas is enormous!

In the midst of the storm, TOPS staff needed to know which of our students and families were physically displaced, which were without power, and which lacked computers and/or supplies. Once we gained understanding of where students and families were located and the severity of the Harvey’s impact, we could provide families with what they needed to continue learning, such as books or Wi-Fi hotspots.

So here’s what we did. Hurricane Harvey affected exactly 58 counties in Texas. Following the hurricane, we ran a report leveraging existing family documentation to discern which TOPS families, by zip code, were impacted by the flooding. This way, we could immediately assess the needs of those drastically affected by the storm and respond accordingly. More important, we were able to prioritize which students were most severely impacted by the hurricane. This information also helped us determine the best method to contact families, such as by text if home phone lines were down.

2. Deploy surveys to assess needs. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we discovered many TOPS families still had access to functional mobile devices, even if the power (and internet) in their homes was out. As mentioned, we needed to find out which specific supplies TOPS students needed. To accomplish this, we deployed mobile surveys. We kept description boxes brief so families could easily respond and let us know which resources were needed. Examples of questions we asked: “Do you have internet access on your laptop or computer? Are you able to access the resources you need to complete your work, such as reading materials?”

I found Survey Monkey extremely helpful for creating the survey. The platform allows recipients to include attachments to their survey responses, a tool we found valuable. For example, in cases where students were suddenly homeless, families were able to send the appropriate documentation to our school quickly and expediently.

3. Communicate with empathy. Perhaps the most important strategy we employed during Hurricane Harvey was to not focus on fixing the problems in front of us. Instead, we focused on using supportive and empathetic language while communicating with those impacted by the tragedy. While fixing things may seem the appropriate approach, it can also easily backfire if key messages are not communicated with a personal touch and great care.

For example, during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, many of our advisors served as the main point of contact for TOPS families who lost their homes. One message that needed to be communicated to students was, “If you accrue unexcused absences for 10 consecutive days you may be withdrawn.” However, it was crucial that this message be delivered with great empathy in light of the devastating circumstances our families found themselves in. If conveyed in a hurried or transactional way, such a message could have been the final breaking point for parents and students enduring extreme stress.

I also found meeting with my team to pre-plan talking points was helpful. I made sure that when my team called families to assess their needs, staff members first inquired, “Are you safe? Are you ok?” Asking these questions first can go a long way toward helping the individuals on the other line, as well as your own staff, get mutual needs met.

Don’t wait until disaster strikes to be poised to respond accordingly. By targeting communications, deploying surveys to assess needs, and remembering to communicate with empathy, administrators can empower their schools to meet the needs of students and families quickly and effectively during times of crisis.

-Forest Smith

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