5 Tips for Effective School Crisis Communication

Professionals in the field of school security cite an effective crisis communication plan as the most important component of a district’s EOP. However, planning must be an ongoing process, with protocols and procedures reviewed and updated annually to reflect advances in technology, changing lifestyles, and the rise of new threats. In the heat of a crisis, outdated systems leave communication gaps that can cause delays and confusion.

Mobile technology has changed the way that people communicate. Today, only half of US homes have landlines. According to PEW Research, people have come to depend on their smartphones to not only make and receive calls but also access the internet. Social media has become the primary information and news source for many, often replacing newspapers and broadcast television news programs. An effective crisis communication plan must factor in these changes.

At one time, school security was concerned with playground fighting or after-hours vandalism. Over the past thirty years, that has changed dramatically as school violence has pushed to the forefront of the national conversation. Other emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have expanded the list of school threats that demand the attention of district leaders.

To meet these new challenges, a crisis communication plan must expand the system’s capacity to quickly reach relevant stakeholders, both internal and external. Not one modality will work in every situation; different emergencies have different levels of urgency. Additionally, systems must be coordinated with law enforcement, first responders, and government agencies. As external entities update systems, districts must adjust their own to ensure compatibility.

Effective crisis communication plans identify which events constitute a crisis, who needs to be informed, and where and how they may best be reached at any particular time of day. Built-in redundancies will ensure that there is no break in lines of communication. A robust communication system will take advantage of new technologies to keep all relevant parties informed of developing and ongoing emergencies. These tips will help school leaders evaluate their district’s current crisis communication plans and update them as needed.

Five Tips for Developing Effective Crisis Communication Plans

1. Identify stakeholders

Emergency plans can only be effective if all people involved understand the protocols and procedures, trust in the administration’s competence, and feel that school leaders are being transparent by communicating vital information during each stage of a crisis. The list of stakeholders in any school district includes internal personnel, staff and students, and external stakeholders, such as parents, local officials, and the community that supports the district. Organizations such as the PTSA and the local library may not readily come to mind when listing stakeholders, but groups such as these are part of the school community and student life. They also should be in the loop when it comes to emergency operations plans.

2. Assess current technology

Many districts developed their IT systems in a piecemeal manner as technology evolved and funds became available. These legacy systems may include SIS databases that store student contact information, attendance software to identify which students are in school on a particular day, and administration programs that house HR information, schedules, and communication tools. An audit of these systems will reveal how well suited they are to aiding communications during a crisis. For example, how quickly will the communications team be able to match up students in attendance with their contact information? During a crisis, will the school’s IT systems make it possible to identify students and personnel with special needs that may require accommodations to follow emergency procedures? The audit process should include taking a physical inventory of communications devices—phones, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, cell phones, and two-way radios—and evaluating them for functionality.

3. Brainstorm scenarios

Most districts have well-established procedures for building evacuations, lockdowns, weather-related cancellations, and early dismissals. Each of these situations requires different types of communication. The fire alarm triggers evacuation, while cancellations require that messages are broadcast community-wide. An effective crisis communication plan must develop appropriate responses to a broad range of threats, some with more urgency than others and some that require discreet communications while others must be announced to the public.

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new communication challenges. Districts must keep students and their parents updated on safety measures and expectations (mask requirements, temperature check verifications, etc.). Communication plans must include protocols to alert the school community and local health officials of possible exposure to the virus. This requires a delicate balancing of privacy concerns with an urgent need to protect others in the community.

4. Develop communication plans for each stage of the emergency management cycle

School personnel, administration, parents and community members, first responders, and local officials all have a role to play in carrying out school emergency operations. These stakeholders should be informed of plans and participate in their creation. Clear, timely communications are essential to creating trust in school leadership, and collaborating with all stakeholders will help planners understand the best modes of communication for different purposes. Parents may want automated SMS messages to inform them of an early dismissal; the community may seek timely information and updates on social media platforms. First responders will have their own systems that must be coordinated with the district’s.

Each stage of a crisis—planning, preparedness, response, and recovery—has different levels of urgency and may utilize different modes of communication. Paper newsletters and posts to the district’s website are fine to announce policy changes, planning meetings, and other non-urgent communications. The means of communication will be different for an active shooter incident or severe weather event.

5. Integrate technology-automate when possible

For all the components of a communication plan to work together, a district’s IT systems should be integrated. Disparate systems adopted over years or even decades can silo data, so users must navigate through different programs for need-to-know information. For example, with many legacy systems, it is difficult to determine if all of a building’s occupants are accounted for during a school evacuation event. Teachers know to grab their class lists and office personnel may be tasked with managing the Visitor Log, but these systems are imperfect. Attendance data is left inside on school servers, and tracking down visitors who haven’t experienced a fire drill is difficult. Integrating and automating systems brings all data together in a central hub, which may be accessed remotely from a mobile device. Automating attendance using RFID-enabled ID cards and modernizing visitor management to accurately track vendors, substitutes, volunteers, and others who are not part of the regular school population will streamline operations and provide the communications team with an accurate list of those involved in the emergency.

Selecting and training personnel to serve as a crisis communication team, reaching out to all stakeholders to join in the planning process, and harnessing the newest technologies will strengthen a district’s ability to manage multiple crises. Contact ScholarChip to learn how technology upgrades can streamline communications and increase operational efficiency in your district.

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!