As anthrax fears multiply and the nation grapples with the grim reality of a long-term war against terrorism, school communicators are seeking ways to share late-breaking news and support teachers while soothing the shattered nerves of parents, students, and staff.
As in any crisis, fear and mistrust thrive in a vacuum. So the goal is to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information quickly, effectively, and on an ongoing basis. And, because what’s relevant to one group may not be to another, communications need to be crafted to meet the needs of each target audience.
Teachers, for example, need grade level-appropriate guidance on what to share with students if another terrorist attack takes place on American soil. When do teachers put the planned lessons aside, and for how long?
Is it really in our students’ best interest to be glued to CNN all day long? Teachers don’t want to ignore what’s happening, but when does the learning stop and parental rights to shape their children’s views begin?
Principals and other administrators need assistance communicating to parents and staff regarding their school or district safeguards against bioterrorism. Parents need age-appropriate suggestions for sharing information with their children without creating even more fear.
School secretaries, supply clerks, and other personnel who frequently handle mail and packages need to know how to spot suspicious parcels and whom to contact if something seems awry.
All personnel should be familiar with their school’s or department’s crisis management plans and protocols for dealing with hazardous materials, bomb threats, public health emergencies, school evacuations, and other war-related concerns.
With its ease of use, minute-by-minute update capabilities, low cost, and widespread use, the web is ideally suited to serve as a primary communications vehicle for almost all target audiences.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many school districts quickly launched special web sites and pages devoted to helping educators and parents navigate the turbulent waters of wartime communications.
North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Colorado’s Jefferson County Public Schools, for example, both created new sections on their home pages that included letters from the superintendent about the tragedy and communication tips for parents and teachers.
School and district web sites also posted information about how to assist the victims or make donations. As anthrax concerns arose, links were added to the local public health departments and the U.S. Postal Service.
Then, as the outpouring of support from the nation’s schoolchildren grew, school and district web sites share these heart-felt acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion with the world.
Now, as the reality of the changed nature of our world settles in, schools’ leaders are using their web sites to communicate changes in out-of-state and out-of-country travel policies, the high legal and emotional costs of making false bomb and anthrax threats, and other critical issues.
Thankfully, the web’s rich resources and school public relations professionals’ long-standing reputation for sharing can help make this daunting challenge more manageable. The web sites listed below offer sound tips, strategies, sample letters, and other tools you can use to communicate more effectively in times of crisis.
The National School Public Relations Association has developed sample talking points, letters, announcements, and other tools to help educators communicate effectively and manage crises more proactively. Members receive eMail bulletins with late-breaking tips, strategies, and ideas.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has developed a special section on its web site devoted to the Sept. 11 tragedy and crisis communications. To access this section, go to the home page and then click on “Resources for Communicating with Children During a Crisis.” Links to national organizations, such as the National Mental Health and Education Center, are listed on this page. There is also news regarding student donations and tributes. See also “But America Stood Strong” and “Travel Policy.”
To find Jefferson County Public Schools’ special web section, simply click on the red, white, and blue ribbon near the top of the district’s home page. This section includes links to a variety of resources, from mental health organizations and the American Liberty Partnership to the White House and the official New York City site.
The U.S. Department of Education has posted helpful information in English and Spanish. See “Helping Children Understand the Terrorist Attack” and “Letters from Mrs. Bush.”
The National Association of Elementary School Principals has posted information on “Safeguarding Students and Schools.”
The Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence has posted useful tips for crisis management, planning, and evaluation. If you haven’t updated your crisis plan to deal with hazardous materials and bioterrorism, this would be a good resource to use and a good time to get started.
As disheartening as it may be, we’ve entered a new era in American education. While we can’t control the uncontrollable, we can arm our students, staff, parents, and communities with appropriate and accurate information. And, as school leaders, we can minimize the disruption to our schools and our students’ learning. For if we truly want America to remain strong, we must see that its children are educated well.