Stronger Together: Communication and EngagementPart of Stronger Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California's Public Schools. Created through the Reopening Schools Task Force that fostered a collaborative process for educators and stakeholders to lend their important voices.
Communication and Community Engagement
The COVID-19 pandemic has created intense stress and trauma for the stakeholders schools serve. Any carefully crafted reopening plan will be only as successful as a LEA’s ability to maintain trust and credibility through frequent and transparent, two-way communication.
Research on risk communication shows that people are less able to comprehend information when under stress and trust is determined when organizations demonstrate empathy and honesty during a crisis. CDE recommends that schools develop comprehensive communication plans targeting key audiences—such as students, parents and caregivers, employees, and community members—that are responsive to stakeholder concerns. Implementing clear, consistent, and specific communication protocols will allow everyone to safely reengage in this next transition for schools.
Effective communication plans will:
- Understand and utilize the communication methods preferred by target audiences.
- Determine the desired outcomes of communication efforts and design key messages to achieve them.
- Differentiate key messaging across multiple platforms (e.g., email, text messaging, push alerts, infographics, website posts, social media, news media outlets, printed mailings, etc.).
- Include languages other than English.
- Use communication methods that will accommodate persons with hearing and visual impairments.
- Develop frequent messaging that includes all critical information to reduce confusion, anxiety, or misunderstandings. Certainty reduces stress, even when there are not always specifics to share. For example, if plan or action step specifics are not yet available, provide detailed updates and information about the decision-making process and factors being considered (especially as they pertain to stakeholder feedback).
- Ensure communication is bias free and destigmatizing and does not perpetuate stereotypes.
- Use existing school resources to amplify messaging: school campus signage, marquees, existing handouts, etc.
- Provide contact information for follow-up questions or concerns.
- Develop a dedicated hotline and web page that includes answers to common questions and that all staff can direct the public to for the latest updates. This measure can reduce the burden on individual employees and will promote message clarity and consistency across schools.
- Encourage consistency of messaging by developing internal talking points for frontline staff, including principals, teachers, office and clerical staff, etc.
Communication strategies leading up to school reopening should emphasize the safety measures undertaken by the school, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for students, teachers, and staff, cleaning and sanitization protocols, physical distancing measures, and mental health and well-being supports. LEAs should also inform parents about the importance of symptom onset and keeping students home when sick. Communication efforts should also outline processes for parent and guardian visits, pick-up, and drop-off.
LEAs should consider partnering with community organizations, local government, health officials, and higher education partners, leveraging trusted third-party messengers to reach a broader audience.
As schools begin to plan for reopening, they must actively and authentically engage parents and caregivers, families, and students in the decision-making process in order to build trust and credibility for any plans that are implemented. Effective community engagement will:
- Clearly communicate the organization’s objectives.
- Ensure stakeholders understand the ask and their role in the process.
- Specify how and when feedback will be used in the decision-making process.
- Reflect back to stakeholders the feedback received to demonstrate the organization has listened.
- Close the loop and strengthen credibility by communicating how feedback was acted upon.
Examples of effective community engagement strategies include:
- Qualitative and quantitative surveys.
- Focus groups and listening sessions with target stakeholders.
- Previews of draft plans with representative stakeholders to build early understanding and solicit real-time feedback.
- Appointment of representative stakeholders—administrators, students, educators, parents and caregivers, health officers, etc.—to steering committees and task forces charged with developing plans.