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What Stands in the Way of Effective School Crisis Communication Plans?

School security experts agree that annually updating the district’s EOP is essential to protecting the health and safety of the school community. A vital piece of this is a review of crisis communication plans. Emergency procedures are only effective if systems allow for unimpeded, clear communications between all stakeholders. Given the speed at which technology advances, older systems may be unable to meet the challenges of evolving threats or keep pace with changes in consumer behavior.

The dynamics of crisis planning require that school leaders take a multifaceted approach when developing a comprehensive communications plan. The process involves managing personnel and public relations, technology needs, and costs. Recognizing what an effective plan requires and identifying barriers to plan creation are the first steps to developing a comprehensive plan to ensure seamless communications during emergencies.

What Makes an Effective Crisis Communication Plan?

A crisis within a school building affects the surrounding community. The families of students and school personnel, government agencies, law enforcement, first responders, and the public all have roles in emergency management. Without the trust and support of these stakeholders, implementing emergency procedures becomes problematic. If members of the school community do not understand the reasoning behind district protocols, they are less likely to comply. Identifying, collaborating with, and seeking feedback from all affected members of the community are critical first steps to developing an effective crisis communication plan.

Build a team

The US Department of Education suggests that districts create, as part of their EOPs, an Incident Command System, to use as a structure for delegating responsibilities during a crisis. Within this structure, a communications team will manage internal and external messaging. Each team member should be tasked with specific duties, such as notifying parents, monitoring communications with emergency responders, or issuing media releases. Plans must codify a chain of command so there is no ambiguity over who must start the process of implementing the emergency response. The team leader, ideally positioned at the district’s central offices, will coordinate all incoming and outgoing communications.

Identify hazards

Different emergencies require different ways of communicating information. Severe weather events that close schools or require early dismissals call for publicly broadcast messaging and automated phone calls or text messages. Fires, bomb threats, and other emergencies that require evacuation need an internal alarm system, as well as methods to communicate outside the building, to establish that everyone has been successfully evacuated.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the conflicting communication demands of a health emergency. An individual’s health information must be private, yet the greater community must be warned of any threat to community health. The threat of a hostile intruder requires further refinement of communication procedures, which demands direct contact with law enforcement and ways to connect with personnel inside the school without, for example, making PA system announcements that may give the intruder an advantage.

Establish communication procedures and methods

Planners must develop procedures and identify the modes and methods of communication most appropriate for each hazard. The phases of the emergency management process—planning, preparation, response, and recovery—have varying degrees of urgency. Comprehensive plans establish the types of communications and messages needed to meet these demands.

Social media has increasingly become a primary source of information for many and is used by districts to build relationships within the community and provide information. However, districts must develop specific guidelines to ensure that any messaging aligns with the district’s mission.

Barriers to Creating Effective Crisis Communication Plans

Time constraints

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that school leaders face when developing crisis communication plans is finding the time to coordinate the people involved. School leaders must seek volunteers from each group of stakeholders, identify which individuals will work best on a communications team, and create systems for keeping all team members involved and informed.

While internal communications with BOE members, faculty, and staff may be efficient, leaders must also reach out to parents, the PTSA, first responders, and local government officials. Phone calls can often end up in voicemail, and email and messaging threads quickly become unwieldy, making communications far more time-consuming than necessary. However, this preliminary step in organizing is critical to solid crisis planning.

Weak community relationships

Also constraining crisis planning is a lack of relationships with law enforcement, emergency response personnel, the town or county’s department of health, and the offices of the mayor or town supervisor. The district must make these connections during the planning stages so they will be there in times of crisis.

Complex, outdated IT systems

Innovations in technology grow much faster than school budgets, and most districts update their IT in a piecemeal fashion. This leaves schools with disparate systems that cannot share data. For example, the district’s SIS typically holds student contact information, while attendance records run on a different program. A pen-and-paper log is often how schools track visitors who enter the building throughout the day. In an emergency, these disparate data repositories must be pulled together so the communications team will know who, in real time, is in the building and how to reach their emergency contacts. This multi-step process saddles crisis plans with awkward procedures.

Technology to Overcoming Effective Crisis Communication Plan Barriers

Upgrading technology so systems are integrated will streamline communications among all stakeholders during each phase of the emergency management cycle. Automating attendance and visitor management systems will ensure that the communications team has access to accurate, real-time data. While crises often start at the building level, communications must be coordinated at the district level. Establishing a “command central” with a system that may be accessed via an administrative hub will ensure a cohesive response to imminent and unfolding emergencies.

Taxpayers may balk at the expense of retiring, all at once, obsolete IT systems and replacing them with state-of-the-art technology. However, upgrading isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. New systems may be added incrementally, a more affordable option that will improve communication capabilities and increase the overall efficiency of everyday operations. Contact ScholarChip to learn how your district can benefit from the newest technology without over-inflating IT budgets.

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!