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5 School Crisis Communication Plan Lessons Learned the Hard Way

The list of crises that school leaders must consider when developing a crisis communication plan, or emergency operations plan (EOP), has grown. Fires, bomb threats, weather emergencies, and bus accidents have been recognized dangers for decades, but now schools must also prepare for active shooter situations and health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication failures during any of these emergencies can have devastating consequences. That said, each scenario has unique communication requirements, and rapidly changing technology has made most in-place crisis communication plans outdated.

School leaders can no longer assume that parents will tune in to hear radio or television emergency announcements; many now stream their news on mobile devices. Instant messaging and live chat make even email seem old-fashioned. Less than half the homes in the United States have landlines, the once go-to communication method, but now, most people carry phones in their pockets, giving schools additional communication options. This option has made engaging with mobile technology a necessity.

In a 2016 RAND Research report, experts in school safety and emergency preparedness cited communication technology as one of the most important factors affecting school safety. Clear, reliable, and unimpeded communications are essential throughout the four stages of the crisis management cycle:

  1. Prevention and mitigation. This is the planning process that requires input from school personnel, parents, local officials, and first responders. Good communication is critical in the development stage to ensure that all stakeholders are involved.
  2. Preparedness. This phase involves developing and executing training plans and ensuring that equipment and technology are up to date, including communication technology.
  3. Response. These are the protocols and procedures that administrators, educators, staff, and students will follow in an emergency. Although parents and the public may not be on school grounds, schools must communicate the parts of these plans that include them, such as meeting locations/student pick-up spots during an evacuation.
  4. Recovery. In this phase, districts must assess the efficacy of their emergency plans and reach out to the school community to mitigate any physical or emotional after-effects of the event. This also includes public relations. Schools must plan how to explain the emergency and the response to parents and the media.

A crisis communication plan may look good on paper, but it takes an emergency to truly test the plan’s effectiveness. Miscommunications jeopardize safety and create a breach of trust with parents and the public. While developing plans, districts can take lessons from the experiences of schools that discovered weak points in their systems. With the right technology in place, these situations could have been handled better or even completely avoided.

1. Snowed-in Atlanta: Drivers trapped overnight; kids sleep at school

Media accounts described it as a “freak” storm. The snow and ice that crippled parts of the southeast in January 2014 forced districts to keep students in school or at local shelters until streets were made safe for travel. Parents attempting to pick up their children were stuck for hours on treacherous roads. They blamed schools for failing to call a snow day or at least an early dismissal. While snow in Georgia is rare, this storm was forecasted by the National Weather Service. The response by school districts could have been better.

School superintendents, who are tasked with making the call to open or close, need on-the-ground information from local officials, local and state police, and highway department heads who are best positioned to know how a weather event will affect travel. These entities know the road conditions in real time. A crisis communication plan must provide a way for school leaders to stay abreast of approaching hazardous weather by connecting quickly with local officials.

An integrated IT system that can be accessed through an administration hub gives superintendents, principals, and other school officials an efficient way to gather the data needed to make informed decisions. It also allows administrators to share news and decisions with the media, parents, and the community, ensuring that everyone is aware of the emergency and the district’s response.

2. Three-year-old boy gets lost and left behind by class, teachers on preschool field trip

Field trips offer students real-world experiences that create tangible connections to classroom learning. They do, however, move students into environments beyond district control, which increases risks to safety. Leaving a student behind should not be one of those risks.

The Head Start field trip that left a preschool boy behind is an alarming example of failed student supervision procedures and failed communications. Technology that utilizes chip-embedded student ID cards, coupled with a system that has mobile capabilities, will ensure that the school bus never leaves without all students on board. In the Houston incident, failure to immediately notify the child’s mother created further problems. Transparency is crucial to trust, and communication protocols must be developed to ensure that all interested parties are included in the information stream.

3. Armed intruder at Newmarket school flags need for safety protocol review, parents say

A man attempted to enter an Ontario elementary school building but was turned away by staff. He later returned, pushed past the school principal who met him at the entrance, and wandered through the halls. The administrator followed the intruder at a distance and asked staff to call the police but did not issue a lock-down order. When the police arrived and took the man into custody, they discovered that he was armed with knives. Further investigation revealed that there was a warrant out for the man’s arrest. As would be expected, parents were alarmed and questioned the principal’s judgment in not locking down the school. The principal defended his actions, saying that he did not want to escalate the incident.

A strong visitor management system, secured door access, and fluid internal communication capabilities can protect against these types of threats. In this particular incident, a visitor management system would have flagged the intruder as a danger at the first encounter, prompting staff to contact law enforcement. With the appropriate technology in place, when the intruder returned, the principal would have been able to lock the entrance door from his remote location. Mobile communication technology integrated with the school administration software would have allowed the principal to stay in contact with personnel in the building, administrators in the district office, and law enforcement throughout the incident, which may have eased community fears.

4. Jacksonville parents upset after not being notified of bus collision

When two district buses collided in Jacksonville, Texas, parents were not immediately notified. Some never received a call from the district and learned of the incident from neighbors. Students were sent home with physical and emotional injuries, according to parents, who were understandably outraged at the lack of communication. Part of the problem was outdated contact information, but even parents with current contact numbers on file didn’t receive a call until the following evening.

While developing crisis communication plans, school leaders should understand the importance of timely notification to parents, the community, and the local media of any incident that threatened student safety. To effectively reach all those concerned, districts need systems with the capability to quickly issue statements from a central hub via multiple methods: email, phone, SMS message, social media, and web page posts. Modern IT systems integrate SIS and administration software, so they may be accessed through a central dashboard from which school leaders may coordinate internal and external communications.

5. Virus outbreak closes Colorado schools for more than 20,000 students

The unabated spread of a norovirus-like illness through a Colorado district forced administration to close more than forty school buildings the week before Thanksgiving. The highly contagious stomach bug is difficult to contain in general, but better communication systems may have helped these schools. Large districts with multiple buildings need a centralized system to keep a close watch on attendance and the health concerns in each building.

Upgraded communication technology can minimize disruption to the school schedule during cold and flu season. It can even help contain virus spread during the COVID-19 pandemic. Automated attendance systems and easy two-way communications between administration, district health offices, and school maintenance personnel through a central hub will help identify sick students so they may be sent home before they infect others in the school. Health data may also trigger sanitizing procedures. While community spread is beyond the control of school leaders, keeping open communications with parents and the community and impressing the importance of keeping ill students home and good hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, can reduce the impact inside school buildings.

While a crisis communication plan cannot predict every possible emergency, implementing the most up-to-date communications technology will go a long way toward ensuring that members of the school community, local officials, and first responders are quickly brought up to speed when school safety is threatened. Contact a ScholarChip representative to learn more about the latest innovations in school communication technology and how updated IT systems can be an important part of your emergency operations plan.

Here at ScholarChip, we’re dedicated to helping school leaders maximize the safety and well-being of students and the entire school community.

Want to develop an effective school crisis communication plan but not sure where to start? Feel free to chat with one of our school crisis communication specialists today!