Why Schools Need to Double Down on Crisis Communications

The past two decades saw a dramatic change in the types of emergencies that school districts had to consider when writing their EOPs. While schools long ago mastered fire drills and created phone trees to call snow days, twentieth-century plans generally did not address active shooter situations, wildfires, and extreme weather that brings floods and high winds, as well as 2020’s contribution to the list of hazards, global pandemics.

A district’s annual EOP review typically includes an audit of its crisis communications capabilities. These may have been cursory in the past, but the rise of new threats and changes in technology has made testing and updating these plans vital to an effective emergency response.

In the heat of a crisis, failed communications can have tragic consequences. To ensure the best possible outcome, school leaders must be proactive. Plans must be comprehensive, rigorously tested, and supported with robust crisis communication systems.

Threats That Challenge Communication Systems

Lockdown and shelter-in-place situations

Lockdown and shelter-in-place protocols are now standard parts of a district’s EOP, presenting unique communication problems. School personnel, students, and visitors in the building need to know that a situation is occurring and which emergency procedures the school is activating. At the same time, the school does not want to share any information with a hostile intruder, which limits the use of public address systems in these cases.

Lockdown and shelter-in-place orders may find students somewhere other than their scheduled class. They may be using a restroom or en route to the library, for example. Typical procedures require that teachers check hallways and lavatories for these students and bring them into their own classrooms, making it difficult to account for each student in the building. Districts also need to coordinate with internal security personnel and external entities such as law enforcement, local officials, and first responders.

Building evacuations

Crisis communications are more straightforward with events requiring building evacuation. Fire alarms and announcements over the PA systems are effective in clearing buildings. Communication issues arise as the personnel in charge attempt to determine if all building occupants are successfully evacuated. This requires knowing who was in the building at the time of the emergency and collecting headcounts from teachers once the evacuation is complete. Traditional attendance programs and visitor logs do not offer real-time data, creating gaps in this information.

Severe weather events

The number and size of hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, and drought-driven wildfires are increasing at an alarming rate across the country. Once-in-a-lifetime weather events are occurring annually. Schools need secure, redundant crisis communication systems that can quickly alert stakeholders of impending threats and keep the school community informed throughout the response and recovery phases of emergency operations. Severe weather may cause power outages and damage to district servers. Communication plans must identify alternative modes of communication that will function under these conditions. Storing data off-site on a cloud-based server will ensure that schools can access vital information in times of crisis.

Health emergencies

Districts have always had to deal with norovirus outbreaks and lice infestations, but the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed communication needs to a new level. The fall of 2020 saw most schools offering hybrid learning models that combine in-person classes with remote learning, complicating the ability to identify who is on campus at any given time.

The nature of the national health emergency, in that one infection can quickly become an outbreak within a community, creates rational fears, which must be met with accurate and clear information. Lack of transparency breeds mistrust, and districts need the trust of the entire school community if they expect members to comply with safety protocols. Also confounding communications is the need to protect individual privacy, particularly in cases where someone associated with the school tests positive for the virus. The community needs accurate information for protection purposes, but it should not be privy to any data that may reveal personal health details.

The CDC recommends that schools designate one person, such as the school nurse, as a community liaison charged with answering COVID-19-related questions from parents and guardians. For COVID-19 and other health issues, unimpeded communications between district leadership, school health offices, and local officials are critical, and protocols must be established to coordinate internal and external networks.

New Threats Demand a Comprehensive Approach

To address these new threats, FEMA recommends brainstorming scenarios and completing a Risk Assessment Worksheet that identifies each hazard’s probability and magnitude, the amount of warning that schools will have, the possible duration of the event, and the level of risk to the students and staff. Once districts identify hazards, they should assess current resources—technology and trained personnel—to expose communication gaps.

Identify Appropriate Modes of Communication

The first iPhone launch was in 2007, and that was followed by the Android phone in 2008. Today, wireless communications are entering a fifth generation, and more than 81% of Americans now rely on smartphones for communication and internet connections. Communication plans need to be updated to reflect new technology and the behavior changes in consumers driven by technological advances.

For many, social media is a primary source of news and information. Superintendent Susan Enfield of Highline Public Schools in Washington points to social media as an effective “chief communicator” tool that school leaders should include in their communication plans. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter may be used to engage the community, build relationships, disseminate information, and correct misinformation.

All communications must be coordinated on the district level, with central offices serving as “command central.” School leaders must have access to all relevant data, ideally from an administration dashboard that allows them to efficiently receive and send communications.

New Technology Streamlines Communications

Legacy technology may not be sufficient to handle new threats. Disparate IT systems silo information and generally cannot share data. For improved efficiency, technology updates should integrate SIS and health office data with automated attendance and visitor management systems.

Seamless communications are more important than ever. New threats require innovative crisis communications systems as part of an effective EOP. Contact ScholarChip to learn how innovations in education and security technology can help.

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!