The COVID-19 pandemic has school leaders immersed in planning for reopening. The new and unfamiliar pandemic environment is also forcing administrators to revisit district EOPs. An additional level of crisis communication protocols may be necessary.
This is an appropriate time to update emergency protocols and procedures for other potential crises, such as severe weather and natural disasters, fires, hazardous materials threats, vehicle accidents, and medical emergencies.
The 2016 RAND Corporation report, The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 School Safety, reviewed a dozen new technologies that could improve school safety. Members of the study panel ranked crisis communication technology as the most important upgrade for school security. School administrators must be able to communicate directly with teachers and other staff members, as well as law enforcement and first responders, when the school is threatened.
As long as COVID-19 remains a risk, districts must have an open line with the local health department to report possible infections and learn of outbreaks in the community. Additionally, in its guidelines, the CDC makes schools responsible for educating staff, students, and families about the behaviors necessary to reduce virus spread. Schools must have effective, efficient ways to meet this obligation. Adopting modern, integrated IT systems will help in this effort.
Communications for the Crisis Management Cycle
The US Department of Education guidelines for developing emergency plans recommends approaching the project by addressing the four different phases of crisis management: mitigation and prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.
1. Mitigation and Prevention
Reducing risk is the first step to keeping schools safe. Districts should reach out to local officials and first responders for help in identifying hazards and solicit input from the public. Boilerplate plans, such as those offered by FEMA, might be a good place to start, but the unique needs of the community will dictate how best to secure buildings and communicate with personnel, parents, and the public during a crisis. Rural districts will have different considerations than urban or suburban districts; affluent communities may have different needs than under-resourced ones. School administrators should seek opinions and ideas from all stakeholders to ensure the practicality and usefulness of proposed safety measures. During the planning process, the district must keep lines of communication open to establish a good rapport with staff, parents, and local officials.
All members of the school community must know their roles in an emergency. The US Department of Education recommends that a member of the school staff be selected to lead the emergency response team. This school commander will serve as the liaison to emergency responders and oversee crisis plan execution. Other necessary positions include a student caregiver, security officers, medical staff, and a media liaison to ensure that the public has accurate and timely information.
The crisis communication plan should specify the communication methods that will be used with each threat—for example, a PA-delivered code to initiate a lockdown or automated phone calls and text messages to parents for unexpected early dismissals.
Response to an emergency must go through a centralized system. The school superintendent is usually the first to learn of events such as an approaching winter storm or neighborhood chemical spill. Other hazards, an intruder, an abnormal number of ill students, or a missing child may first be identified by a teacher or the school nurse. Establishing communication protocols and procedures will ensure that information reaches administrators, who from their central location, may determine the nature of the emergency—if one truly exists—and decide on the best response.
Schools want to return to learning as quickly as possible, but the physical and emotional aftermath of a crisis may affect the school for weeks or even months. A crisis intervention team will play a central role in recovery by monitoring students and staff and offering counseling if necessary. This work may include debriefing staff and reaching out to students and their families.
In each phase of the cycle, robust communication capabilities are critical. A strong crisis communication strategy must have built-in redundancies to increase system reliability. In an emergency, phone lines may go down or the internet may be disabled. As part of the planning process, school leaders must assess their existing communication technology to determine if it is up to the task.
Problems with Legacy Systems
Most districts built their IT systems piecemeal over the years as technology advanced and funding became available. Many of these SIS, attendance, administration, and communication systems are outdated and lack intuitive, user-friendly interfaces. Disparate systems silo data, which means that a student’s contact information may be separate from their attendance records, and attendance records that lack real-time processing are not helpful in a crisis, anyway.
Old-school visitor management systems, still used by many districts across the country, require vendors, substitutes, and volunteers to sign into a logbook at the school entrance. In an emergency, the superintendent would need to visit each school in the district or have staff members deliver logs to the district offices to learn exactly who is in each building.
Upgraded IT Systems Can Facilitate Communications
Integrated IT systems expand a district’s communication capabilities to meet the multiple safety challenges that schools face. Smart ID technology connects students and staff to information systems via a chip-embedded ID card. Cardholders swipe or tap their cards at a card reader as they enter the building to record attendance. Administrators can monitor attendance from a central location and will know exactly who is present and who is absent. This information may be shared with law enforcement and emergency personnel if necessary. Parents can even request that the automated system send them an email to let them know that their child has arrived at school.
An automated visitor management system capable of reading state-issued IDs, such as a driver’s license, serves a similar purpose. Rather than sign in with a pen and paper, visitors must go through a verification-of-identity process by swiping their ID at a visitor management kiosk. The system will compare the ID to SIS information to determine if the individual seeking entrance is involved in a custody dispute or is the subject of an order of protection, for example. The system may also be linked to state sex offender registries to screen out this danger. As with the smart ID cards, this technology allows administrators to keep a close watch over building occupancy.
Budget constraints have forced many districts to reduce administrative expenses, which often translates to reduced central office staff. Integrated technology strengthens the central office function with an administration hub. Each school will be fully connected to the district office, and communications between the main and building offices, as well as external sources, can flow unimpeded.
To prepare for, respond to, and recover effectively from crises, school leaders must have the ability to communicate quickly and clearly with internal and external stakeholders. Integrated, up-to-date IT systems support a centralized crisis communications framework. Investing in this new technology will improve school security, increase operational efficiency, and ensure that the district is well prepared for emergencies.
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!