In March of 2020, schools all over the country were physically closed. However, teaching and learning continued. In Saluda County Schools (SCS), we made clear and consistent communication one of our top priorities. Here are four things we believe we did well that may help other school leaders communicate and plan for what may be an uncertain fall.
Focusing on Social and Emotional Health
Building relationships is critical for success in any organization, and a key component of relationship-building is clear and consistent communication. In particularly stressful times, taking a social and emotional approach to messaging can help build trust among all stakeholders.
For the past three years, Saluda County Schools has maintained a focus on the social and emotional health of its students and staff. At the time of closure, SCS was in its third year of an ongoing professional learning focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) through a partnership with Francis Marion University’s Center of Excellence to Prepare Teachers of Children of Poverty (www.fmucenterofexcellence.org/). The work with the Center of Excellence set Saluda County Schools up for success, even during this spring’s school closure due to COVID-19. Since staff members, students, parents, and other stakeholders knew the district’s commitment to them, they trusted us when their worlds were turned upside down.
Providing Daily Staff Updates
Throughout closure, the district sent out daily staff updates and weekly community updates. Each staff update followed the same structure:
- The most current factual information available—along with the consistent message that we are making the best decisions based on the most current information.
- A teaching and learning resource section. Staff members were encouraged to email district staff recommended resources and webinars to share with colleagues.
- An SEL component. Sometimes this was a link to a short article about self-care; other times it was an invitation to engage in a social media connection activity (search #OneSaluda or #SaludaSpreadsKindness on Twitter for examples).
Every update was signed “Your District Office Family,” because that is what we are in Saluda County Schools—a family.
Creating a District Task Force to Plan Reopening
A mentor of mine would often repeat the adage: Two heads are better than one, but five are better than two. In a small district like Saluda County, few people take on many roles, and the work can often feel lonely and overwhelming. The work of developing a plan to safely reopen schools cannot be shouldered by a few. As a result, SCS took the recommendations of the South Carolina Department of Education’s AccelerateED task force and created our own, in-district task force.
Following the AccelerateED model, we assembled a full task force and three subcommittees. The purpose of the full task force was to:
- Set goals for the district and for the subcommittees
- Determine next steps for the district and the subcommittees
- Listen to and approve the work of subcommittees
- Voice stakeholder concerns
The purpose of the subcommittees was to:
- Develop action steps to meet the goals of the task force
- Execute the action steps to meet goals
- Create documents, etc. to support the goals and communicate the work of the task force
The subcommittees and their focus topics are:
- Building, Operations, and Student/Staff Safety—chaired by the district superintendent
- Health and safety protocols
- Instruction—chaired by the assistant superintendent
- Instructional contingency plans: traditional, hybrid, virtual
- Special populations (e.g., English-language learners, special education)
- Social and Emotional Health—chaired by the director of guidance
- SEL professional learning for staff
- SEL supports for all stakeholders
- Communication (e.g., surveys, public service announcements)
The task force and subcommittees have been meeting regularly in a hybrid format: some members attend in-person, socially distanced meetings while others attend via video conference. All members were carefully selected in order to ensure a representative voice of our school and local community. Teachers, media specialists, counselors, school resource officers, administrators, nurses, parents, and students all bring unique concerns and areas of expertise to our work.
Utilizing Available Resources
At every turn, we rely heavily on the experts: we stay updated on the latest recommendations from the Department of Health and Environmental Control and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Further, the South Carolina Department of Education created a Dedication to Education website (http://dedicationtoeducation.com/) that houses recommendations for the safe reopening of schools.
We gather stakeholder feedback in a variety of ways, including parent and teacher surveys, a managed email account for concerns and questions, and through our task force. The Social and Emotional Health subcommittee created a student media team that works under the direction of the subcommittee chairperson. They have made a series of public service announcements that show our community the work that is being done to ensure our schools are safe and that learning will continue, regardless of our fall opening model.
Maintaining clear and consistent communication during such unprecedented times can be daunting. A systemwide plan to share factual information in a timely way can help build trust with all stakeholders. What does your district’s communication plan look like?
Abbey Duggins, PhD, is the Assistant Superintendent of Saluda County Schools, where she has worked for the last 18 years as an English teacher, literacy coach, and assistant principal. She is the 2017 South Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@asduggins).