How to take the stress out of returning to school in COVID times

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Imagine if crisis communications was easy. Imagine if COVID-19 and children going back to school was not causing parents lots of stress. Imagine if kids felt 100% confident about returning to school, having fun with their friends and studying, that though they’re surrounded by this imminent threat, they feel that their parents and their school are completely in control. Though it may seem far-fetched, it is possible. COVID-19 is just another crisis to manage, and crisis communications has one very simple rule, which is preparation, because during a crisis itself, the organisation and the individuals running it are going to be busy managing the crisis that they won’t have time to sit back and think about how to author and prepare the content that’s ready and necessary. 

There are a large number of stakeholders and in the SPEAK|pr program, there are three different audiences for any communications: the internal, the partners, and the external. In this case, for schools, the focus is on the internal (or the children) and the partners (or the parents, administrators, and anyone helping the children get through this). Now, how can one reassure all the different stakeholders as kids go back to school?

Crisis communications 101

COVID-19 is a crisis that has changed everyone’s lives, and as people are slowly starting to ease into "the new normal," they need to prepare themselves in case there’s another attack. The key to the crisis communications, whether it’s about COVID or anything else, is about continuity management and thinking through all the potential scenarios and outcomes. It’s not necessarily about trying to solve the crisis. Instead, it’s about trying to ensure there’s continuity of operations, so that the crisis doesn’t become fatal, and that can be done in a number of different ways. 

First, identify who the stakeholders are. In this case, they are the students, their parents, and the school administrators. As education is taking place both in school and sometimes within bubbles, time is an important factor. There are some protocols and infrastructure set up that enable communication only within certain timeframes. Ideally, communication takes place within regular school hours as much as possible, because that’s when people are expecting that communication. 

Photo from Stoodnt

Next, ensure that people understand when communication might be sent out. Communicating with everybody at the same time, and having as well some coding as to the level of alert is paramount. Setting a regular time when there’s an agreed announcement pattern is reassuring. One of the issues with a crisis is that people become less rational, and the fear makes them take action. Sometimes, there’s paralysis, and a big part of crisis communication and continuity is ensuring that everybody continues to behave in a rational and calm way, because oftentimes, it’s the panic that causes more damage than the actual problem itself. So, when a time of day that people can expect to receive information has been set, then decide how to send it out. This could be done using broadcast software, email, or mobile, but mobile seems to be the best platform, because everybody’s got a mobile phone and they may not be checking their emails as regularly. 

There is a concept in the UK called the Digital Resilience Framework, which is a tool for organisations and policymakers to embed digital resilience into products, education, and services. This is a great concept that organisations can adopt, because the next part of continuity is how to continue serving the clients, how to continue giving children education if school cannot take place in the same way as it did before. What happens if there’s an outbreak? Two children in one class or in a bubble could lead to the shutdown of an entire school, so how does one tackle that? Well, if a school has a resilience framework, it already has some protocols about what happens next, where the children should go to continue their studies, if it’s online, or if it’s in a separate bubble, if caregivers know how to execute any backup plan, and if parents have to then collect their children from school or make arrangements for the children to go to other places to stay until work is finished. Again, this comes back to planning.

In the Second World War, when a siren went off to denote an air raid was taking place, everybody would go to the shelter, and the shelter warden would be there. Everybody knew which shelter to go to. Everyone knew where they were to stay in the shelter. Everyone was aware what was going to happen when the air raid was over and how they’d be informed. So, it’s important to create simple and easy to understand actions or a sequence of events for people to follow. Above all, the children who are the main concern need to see that their parents are in control, that their school is being run well, and that their education isn’t being compromised. In this sense, the bigger picture of the coronavirus is an opportunity to demonstrate to the next generation how to manage a crisis, how not to buckle, how not to go silent, and how to not descend into chaos by planning well. There is no doubt that there is a huge amount of content and consideration going into planning for schools, but it’s the school’s job as well to ensure that the parents understand and are reassured about these policies. 

The COVID mindset bringing out the best in us

One of the few positive outcomes of COVID-19 that we can see is that the education sector is sharing best practices, like what the Singapore American School is doing through their website where they talk about the need for preparedness, a resilience framework for a communications protocol, and above all, reassurance for the children that the school, the parents, and all the people involved can guarantee safety and have composure and understand what to do when the situation escalates from a green to blue to a red. 

Without a sense of peace of mind, none of the children will be happy and none of the community in which the children live will be happy. It will mean that ultimately, we can’t get on with our own jobs, because we are dealing with stressful situations when it comes to our children’s schooling, and that is disruptive. So, crisis communications is all about preparation. There is really no excuse now for COVID to be considered to be a crisis. COVID isn’t a crisis anymore. It’s a situation for us to all deal with.

The COVID mindset is about PR during COVID times being Compassionate, Optimistic, Values-based, Informative, and Digital. Public relations for schools and for all of the higher education should have a COVID lens now. Ultimately, public relations is about communicating how an organisation is managing situations to all of its stakeholders, and this is probably one of the most complex and most universal communications campaigns taking place. Everyone is communicating across generations, across cultures, and across geographies how they’re going to manage healthcare. At the heart of that is probably one of the most important customer groups in the world, and that is the next generation. Sorting out the messaging, deciding who needs to say what and where, and giving clues and clear guidance that’s unambiguous to all can greatly help. Going back to school doesn’t have to be stressful or unpleasant. More importantly, going back to school can be permanent, as long as people are prepared.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Zawya

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