School board trustees and district educational leaders are some of the most prominent individuals within their community. These leaders know that school districts exist to improve student outcomes in core academic knowledge and skills. While health and safety remain a top priority, students can often continue learning even when schools close or during disrupted operations.
During a crisis:
- School boards should adopt health and safety and student learning emergency priorities and hold superintendents and school leaders accountable by monitoring results.
- Education leaders should operationalize the school board's emergency priorities and focus on creative ways to ensure students safely continue learning.
All leaders should have thoughtful communication plans that impart both strength and positivity to stakeholders.To help school boards and school system leaders, here is a brief guide with some recommendations:
School Board Crisis Meeting Agendas and Governance:
- School boards are allowed to conduct meetings virtually and telephonically.
- In a crisis, the school board should formally adopt no more than five public emergency priorities. The priorities should include:
- Safety, security, and well-being of staff and students
- Educational services to students when schools close or during disrupted operations. Even in a crisis, if safely possible, students should keep improving in core knowledge and skills.
- Once the school board has adopted its emergency priorities, the superintendent should:
- Operationalize systems to achieve the school board's emergency priorities,
- Select specific ways to measure emergency priority progress and results.
- The superintendent should prepare school board "monitoring reports" that allow the school board to hold the school system accountable for progress. Monitoring reports should include:
- The particular emergency priority;
- Measures of progress toward the emergency priority and results;
- The superintendent's interpretation of the school district's progress; and
- Needed next steps and school board actions.
School Board Crisis Meetings and Communications (remember many of these school board meetings can now be virtual):
- Demonstrate solidarity. Discussions and statements should support the work of the superintendent and school leadership in managing the crisis and focus on the school board's adopted emergency priorities (focused on the safety, security, and well-being of staff and students, and student continued learning).
- Be prepared and study meeting materials in advance.
- Keep a professional demeanor. During virtual meetings, tone and dress should be no less formal than if in a boardroom surrounded by peers and superiors. Minimize home life distractions like animals, children, and ringing phones. Trustworthy professionals keep home and work lives separate, even when under the same roof.
- Impart strength, control, organization, and positivity. Do not allow emotions to rule the day. Leaders cannot control the disaster, but they can control their responses.
- Be on time. Joining a meeting late can signal to stakeholders that the meeting is not a priority. If something is preventing on-time attendance at a virtual meeting, let the moderator know in advance.
- Prepare for long meetings with no breaks. Most virtual meetings are fast-paced, and breaks can be awkward. Grab a glass of water or go to the restroom before the meeting.
- Don't plan on just listening in, but to actively engage and participate. It is easy to get distracted during virtual meetings. Be sure to put cell phones and other technology aside and fully engage in the meeting.
- Don't speak out of turn or over others. If it is someone else's turn to present, let them finish without interruptions. The Board President or moderator should plan speakers, communication guidance, and direct the meeting.
- Communicate the school district's vision for students. Never lose sight and continue to communicate the school district's vision.
- Celebrate success. If the school district successfully implements a crisis program, such as online learning, be sure to celebrate.
- Reserve time for stakeholder input or host open to the public town hall meetings.
- Minimize closed door or executive time (which can be awkward when virtual); make decisions in public and transparently whenever possible.
Superintendent and Education Leader Crisis Communications:
- Focus on health and safety. Employees, parents, and students need to actively hear that their health and safety is at the forefront of decisions. Communicate: "We place the highest priority on the health and safety of our students and staff."
- Focus on students continuing to improve in core knowledge and skills. Employees, parents, and students need to actively hear that you want student outcomes to continue to improve in core academic knowledge and skills.
- If possible, identify a communication point person or team and establish an easy-to-find, one-stop crisis website page link on the school district's current website. Share the link widely, especially on social media.
- The school district link should include FAQs, links to critical resources, especially for student continued learning, the school board's emergency priorities, and information about past and future meetings and communications. If the school district is still putting its website link together, communicate: "We will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our crisis website link . . . ."
- Establish a public "help/question" email or dedicated phone line where stakeholders can submit questions and get answers. Be sure all stakeholder questions are reported to the communication point person or team for a timely response. Remember, nothing breaks trust more quickly than failing to timely take and answer questions or giving inconsistent information. Sometimes the answer can be: "I don't know, I promise to follow-up with you on X date," "We understand there are problems, and we are working on them," "We are sorry," or "Here is the helpline number, they will get back to you."
- Establish a consistent email communication template and schedule. In the emails, consider including:
- the school district's vision for students and the school board's emergency priorities,
- the current status of significant decisions,
- celebrate success in students continuing to learn,
- answer critical questions,
- repeat important information such as the helpline number or email, and
- identify the date of the next communication. Keep a consistent email communication schedule, even when there is no big news to announce.
- Remain upbeat and positive. Create hopeful messages focused on the current and future success, and growth of students. Have a "we can do this" attitude even when setbacks happen.
- Be forthright and communicative even when things go wrong. If a problem needs to be solved, proactively acknowledge the problem and that the district is working on it, give a time when the problem will be solved, and stick to that timeline.
- Ensure students continue to learn and provide parents with learning resources. Provide parents with resources, including online tools, so they can help the learning process.
- Show empathy, listen, and direct stakeholders to where they can get help through email or phone line. Remember, many individuals are facing severe hardships. Be sure all school district employees acknowledge complaints with a positive and calm attitude and direct stakeholders to the help email or phone line.