Advances in mobile technology have created a hyperconnected world that upends traditional ways of communicating. Landlines, pagers, two-way radios, public address systems, radio, and broadcast television stations have largely been supplanted by cell phones with SMS functions, websites, social media platforms, and streaming services.
These new technologies have also driven changes in consumer behavior. According to Pew Research, more than 80% of Americans now carry smartphones that give them the ability to connect to the internet almost anywhere at any time. It is now more the rule than the exception that members of a household or organization will have a personal phone number and individual communication preferences. The percentage of adults who use social media has risen from 5% in 2005 to 72% in 2019. Traditional ways of reaching out to the community—newsletters and local print, radio, or television media—have taken a secondary role as information sources. Many people now rely on a Facebook or Twitter app to keep up to date. This has implications for emergency management. Plans that do not recognize these changes will leave gaps in communications.
Also affecting crisis communications is the evolving nature of threats. School safety has moved beyond merely monitoring the playground for fights and holding monthly fire drills. While most districts will hopefully never have to deal with a school shooting, the possibility has pushed schools to harden their buildings and develop communication protocols to meet the demands of a worst-case scenario. Districts may feel confident in their ability to protect students and personnel with surveillance cameras and armed resource officers, but 2020 brought a new threat that cameras and guards could not deter: a global pandemic. The COVID-19 health crisis has created new communication challenges that must be addressed in a district’s communication plan.
Simply adopting the newest technologies is not enough to ensure seamless communications. Messaging must be coordinated, and plans must have backup systems that will kick in if primary communication methods fail. The truth of this became tragically apparent in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001.
Years before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani created the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM). OEM was tasked with monitoring the city’s key communication channels, including NYPD and FDNY radios, and coordinating an emergency response. Despite this planning, the 9/11 Commission Report determined that communications between the police, fire departments, and 911 dispatchers had failed. Phone operators, who were taking calls from inside the burning towers, did not know that NYPD had ruled out rooftop rescues, leaving the dispatchers unable to advise callers if they should evacuate up, down, or stay in place. Within the buildings, PA systems were damaged, so many did not hear evacuation orders. Intercoms, which building occupants had been trained to use in an emergency, were also damaged in the attacks.
The breakdown in communications on 9/11 was caused by a combination of personnel mismanagement and equipment failures. To be effective, a comprehensive crisis communication plan must organize and optimize human resources and technology to meet communication needs through all phases of emergency operations management.
Emergency operations are most successful when a school district and its community collaborate on crisis planning. According to the US Department of Education, case studies show that emergency plans are most effective when developed by a team, as all involved organizations accept and understand what they must do in a crisis. Members of a planning team should be drawn from the administration, faculty, staff, parent groups, and local officials. Each of these stakeholders will offer a different perspective that will provide useful insights into the needs of the cohorts they represent. While the make-up of the planning team must be diverse, to be practical and efficient, the team should be small enough so the members can work together closely. Typically, a team leader will head the communication team’s organizational chart, with building representatives and community liaisons filling the second tier.
School leaders need the trust of all stakeholders if they expect compliance with procedures. This trust is best earned by being transparent and seeking community feedback during the planning process. An educator, a bus driver, and a parent each have a unique point of view that must be considered. Actively seeking input and comments to proposed plans will eliminate “blind spots” caused when planners fail to understand the communication behaviors and needs of all stakeholders.
Crisis communication plans must list the stakeholders to be contacted during each phase of an emergency operation. A cohesive emergency response requires that all participants know the protocols and are informed when a triggering event occurs. While administration generally takes the lead, school personnel and students can only follow that lead if they know an emergency is unfolding, know the urgency of the event, and understand which procedures they must follow. During a crisis, communications must also flow unimpeded to external stakeholders: law enforcement, first responders, parents and guardians, and the surrounding community.
The different modes of communication—video, audio, and text—each have a place in a communications plan. Video may be most useful during the preparation and training phase of emergency management. This format appeals to students and may be utilized for public service announcements published on the district website or social media platforms. Audio and written communications will be the most common ways that a district will issue messages. With these, clarity and timeliness are the priority.
Comprehensive plans incorporate multiple means of communication, and cell phone technology and the internet have expanded the way that messages may be relayed. Internal systems, such as PA systems, two-way radios, intranet networks, and email, will support communications within district buildings and vehicles. To reach out beyond school walls, reliable district communication systems must include landlines, cell phones, SMS, and social media messaging.
The district’s website, social media platforms, and newsletters that are emailed, sent home with students, or delivered via the US Postal Service will inform the public and document policy changes and information updates. Additionally, much of the public still depends on radio, cable and network television news media, and the local newspaper for information. Developing a relationship with representatives at these outlets bolsters a district’s ability to reach all stakeholders.
“Just like we talk about meeting our kids where they are,” says Nathan McCann, “we need to meet our community where it is, and that is on social media.” McCann, superintendent of the Ridgefield School District in Washington, was one of five panelists discussing social media use in schools during a session of the 2020 National Conference on Education. Social media use in the United States has grown exponentially over the past decade, and platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are so thoroughly woven into the present-day culture that many people check these sites daily, if not hourly.
NCE panel superintendents found social media to be a powerful tool for building relationships with the public. District leaders, especially in times of crisis, need the support of the entire community, and social media is an effective route to making connections. While a digital connection may not seem as strong as face-to-face interactions, regular communications and the back-and-forth with comments on social media posts create a sense of community that engenders trust.
Social media is not without its drawbacks. Anyone who has spent any time on these platforms has seen how quickly misinformation spreads and negativity hijacks discussion threads. Effective communication plans address these concerns by developing social media protocols and assigning specific staff members the task of monitoring the district’s social media platforms. This will ensure that inappropriate comments are blocked and misinformation corrected.
During a crisis, the public will turn to social media for information. These platforms are useful for quickly disseminating information and providing timely situation updates but serve best as a secondary means of communicating during an emergency. These platforms may be better used in the planning and preparation phases of emergency operations.
Storms may knock out phone and power lines; a community-wide crisis may cause cell phone use that exceeds local bandwidth capacity, causing entire networks to crash. Every “Plan A” needs a “Plan B.” Generators, batteries, and multiple ways to connect to the internet, such as Ethernet, district Wi-Fi, off-site Wi-Fi hotspots, and 4G/5G networks. Data loss, which may be caused by damage to servers, cyber attacks, or other system issues, will compromise a school’s communication capabilities. A strong crisis communication plan will have backup systems in place. Develop a strategy for ensuring that contact information for students, their families, school personnel, local government agencies, and the media are updated regularly.
A comprehensive crisis communication plan has many moving parts: the people involved, the phases and types of emergencies, the varying degrees of urgency, and the different technologies utilized. A systematic approach to plan development will ensure that all components work together.
The objectives of a crisis communication plan are so obvious, it may seem that stating goals is an unnecessary step, but writing a concise statement of purpose provides a standard by which all proposed protocols may be measured.
The primary objective, the overall purpose of emergency planning, is to mitigate and reduce threats to the health and safety of the school community. To accomplish this, districts must establish policies that will support clear, seamless internal and external communications. Confusing messages can cause unnecessary harm and have tragic consequences. Poor communications, even in situations that end safely, can cause long-term damage to a district’s relationship with the public. Officials at the Victor Central School district in New York learned this lesson the hard way when a video of one of their school buses went viral on social media.
The bus driver had stopped the bus full of children before reaching the bus stop and refused to let the students disembark. Parents waiting to pick up their children became angry as no one with the district explained why the children were being held. (The district later established the driver was following protocols by stopping the bus to deal with misbehaviors.) The video shows a bus full of crying, screaming children and parents outside the vehicle demanding their children be released. Eventually, a state trooper and the district’s transportation director arrived on the scene to settle the situation, but the incident left parents angry at the lack of communication. The day after the incident, one parent said in an interview with a local news station, “As of right now, I’m still in the dark just as I was when I walked up to that bus in the first place.”
No school wants to be in this situation. Transparency and community buy-in to district protocols and procedures are essential to emergency operation management and must be prioritized in communication planning.
The superintendent of schools brings a perspective to emergency operations that will be different from the perspective of a teaching assistant or food service worker. A single parent with a full-time job outside the home will have different communication preferences than a stay-at-home guardian. SMS messages may be most useful for one, while the other expects a call to their landline should a crisis break. Law enforcement, emergency services, and government officials each have their own communication systems. All these stakeholders must be brought into the planning process.
Over the past several decades, the nature of threats to school safety has changed. Districts have had to add lockdown drills and shelter-in-place protocols to their EOPs, and the COVID-19 pandemic demanded that schools respond with new health policies. Identifying potential hazards is the first step to determining communication needs.
Severe weather events and the dangers they bring are becoming a more common threat as warming oceans increase the intensity of storms. Floods are occurring with alarming frequency in the eastern United States and are affecting inland areas not previously prone to severe flooding. On the West Coast, drought is driving wildfires of unprecedented size.
Technology, such as automatic braking systems and electronic stability control, has increased safety on school buses and other school vehicles. Statistics on injuries analyzed by the National Safety Council show that transportation by bus poses less danger than walking or riding in a car, but accidents do happen, and the ability to quickly reach emergency medical services is critical. Communication is equally important with non-vehicle accidents, such as playground mishaps or slip-and-fall injuries. In all these cases, parents must be informed and the community apprised of the situation when appropriate, as quickly as possible. Rumors spread quickly through social media, and no parents should learn that their child was involved in an accident via Facebook.
Building evacuation drills are routine in every school, but these types of emergencies come with unique communication challenges. Students and staff know how to respond to the sound of a fire alarm, but once outside, determining if the building has been successfully evacuated and locating all students, staff, and visitors depends on communication capabilities.
Controlled access to school buildings is the most often implemented security measure in US schools. A breach of that security presents unique communication challenges. Building administrators, faculty, and staff must be made aware of the situation, but communications must be discreet, rather than announced over a PA system, to avoid panic among students and tipping off the intruder. Law enforcement must be informed, and communication protocols must be established for media releases.
Chemical spills, criminal activity, and other community-wide threats present different communication challenges. A strong relationship with local officials, coupled with robust, two-way communication capabilities, will ensure that school leaders have the information they need to protect students. Additionally, parents will be concerned and need to be reassured that their children are safe.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to reexamine their health emergency protocols. Without a cure, the virus proved to be a greater danger to student and community health than the lice infestations and norovirus outbreaks that schools are used to handling. Communications must protect individual privacy while alerting the school community to threats.
Emergency operations span four phases: prevention, preparation, response, and recovery. Communication needs vary with each phase. Consider each potential hazard within this framework, and identify which modes of communication are most appropriate to meet the needs of each situation.
Prevention. Some crises are avoidable, and school leaders must proactively identify these hazards and implement preventative measures. Mitigating risks, for example, by shoring up infrastructure to withstand severe weather or implementing programs to identify students who may become violent requires collaboration and communication with all stakeholders.
Preparation. This is the planning and training stage of emergency operations. The communications team must set up systems that will allow for discussions between administration, school personnel, and the community outside the school walls. Training personnel in crisis response and educating students and the community about their roles in the response may take the form of written guides, video demonstrations, and webinars created by the communications team.
Response. Quick action and coordinated, seamless communications are critical to protecting students and school personnel. All systems must operate without a hitch to achieve the primary goal of reducing health and safety threats in schools.
Recovery. The emotional effects of a crisis may continue days, weeks, and even months after the danger has passed. The recovery effort must include outreach to all people affected by the event to restore a positive learning environment. In the aftermath of a crisis, the community will have questions and concerns. The district must attend to public relations with press statements and posts to social media.
The US Department of Education has a template for assessing school safety risks. The matrix identifies hazards and their probability, magnitude, duration, and risk priority (high, medium, or low). Assessing each risk and assigning priority levels will aid planners as they assign communication methods. Immediate, need-to-know communications require that contact is verified. People—first responders, law enforcement, health officials, etc.—must instantly acknowledge and respond. For less urgent communications, emails or notices sent home with students might be fine.
Each mode of communication will have a weakness. Some will fail during a power outage or crash of cell phone networks. Damage to school buildings may disrupt internet connectivity or a school’s ability to access data stored on an in-house server. Use an If-Then template to develop contingency plans.
In January 2020, an armed man forced his way into a Newmarket, Ontario, elementary school. The school principal asked staff to contact the police and then followed the intruder through the building. He did not order a lockdown. The incident was resolved without harm to students, but the principal’s actions caused a rift in the community. Parents were upset that the school was not locked down. This incident illustrates the need to develop crisis response protocols and explain procedures to the community.
District plans must specify which events will trigger a crisis response and who on the team is tasked with implementing crisis communications protocols. These guidelines should include pre-written messages. The aim is to create event-specific messages that are clear and express an appropriate level of urgency without creating panic. Plans must give special consideration to disabled students and personnel who may require alternative communication methods.
Parents and guardians must know the procedures for each type of emergency. Without a cohesive, community-endorsed plan, concerned parents may arrive at school during an emergency and create confusion as the crisis management team is implementing procedures. Often, community involvement is necessary. For example, school procedures may include evacuating students to public sites away from school grounds. If parents are expected to pick up their children, they must know their child’s assigned evacuation location in advance.
With the COVID-19 national health emergency, districts had to develop new health and safety protocols. School personnel, students, and school visitors need to be informed of any rules concerning health screenings, face coverings, and hygiene requirements.
Outdated communication systems may fail to connect with stakeholders who have made the digital transition in their own communication methods. An early school closing announcement broadcasted by a local radio station will not be heard by the parent who relies on social media alerts for news updates. Many districts recognize this and now include automated SMS messaging capabilities in their communication systems.
Most district IT systems were developed incrementally as new technology became available and affordable. Generally, these legacy SIS, attendance, and administration systems are unable to share data. Identifying the occupants of a building and then bringing up the matching contact information requires navigating disparate systems, often with older interfaces that are not user-friendly.
While replacing all legacy systems at one time is not feasible for most districts, an assessment of existing technology for functionality will reveal the weakest points in the district’s communications and point to areas that could most benefit from upgrades. System reviews should include public address systems, intercoms, and two-way radios. Phone systems, landlines, and cell phones, along with automated messaging, must be evaluated for reliability. The communications team should review options annually, as telecommunication companies may have updated equipment to offer.
Email groups may be filled with old email addresses. An email blast asking recipients to verify contact information will allow the communications team to purge lists and update email contacts. Similarly, at the start of each school year, parents and guardians should be asked to provide at least two current contact methods.
The district website serves as a center of information for the school community and the public. It should be refreshed every few years to reflect changes in how users navigate the web pages. Site information should be updated weekly and older information archived. Because internet access is critical to crisis communications, plans must identify alternatives to making connections should the district’s wired systems go down during an emergency. Nearby Wi-Fi hotspots may be utilized, or the internet may be accessed via 4G or 5G networks.
While many emergencies may originate in a single school building, communications must flow to and from the central offices, where they may be coordinated for a cohesive response. An administration hub will allow access to all data from one place and provide real-time data and current contact information. Storing this data on off-site servers will allow for remote access, which may be critical during events that require building evacuation. From this communication locus, a team member may post statements to the district website and social media platforms and field questions from the community.
To create a central communications hub, SIS, attendance, visitor management, and administration programs must all be integrated. Crisis team leaders must have access to student and personnel information, and they must know who is in attendance, on the bus, or in the schoolyard as an emergency breaks. Automated attendance and visitor management programs provide this data in real time.
An effective school crisis communication plan must offer pragmatic solutions to communication challenges. These challenges and the technology available to address them continually change. Plans should be updated annually and adjusted to account for new technology and changes in the way that people communicate.
Dedicating resources to technology upgrades will streamline systems, better securing the health and welfare of the students and the school community. Investments in IT may be a difficult sell to budget-conscious boards, but technology costs may be offset by increases in the overall efficiency of crisis communications and everyday school operations.
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!