Times are tough. More students are homeless and hungry. More school employees are getting laid off. People who normally don’t worry much about their personal finances are worried now.

With anxiety and stress rampant, school leaders need to focus more time and attention on communications.

Simple things, such as stopping by classrooms and offices more frequently to check in with staff about how they’re doing and offering a pat on the back or a sympathetic shoulder, often mean the most. Students need to know they’re more than just a test score; staff members need to know they’re more than just another line item on the budget.

During a crisis–and make no mistake, this is a crisis–visible leadership is critical. School board members, superintendents, and other district-level administrators need to get out of the central office and into the schools, cafeterias, maintenance facilities, and transportation depots.

Technology can help. North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools (GCS), for example, has created a special Employee Support Center online to help staff cope with job loss and stress.

The site puts information regarding benefits, reduction-in-force policies, job openings, and the employee assistance program in one place to make access easier. Links to services, from human resources to local food banks, support groups, and crisis assistance programs, are included as well.

GCS also has devoted a special section on its web site to keep employees, parents, and the public informed about the district’s budget. Updated frequently, this site includes spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, press releases, public hearing dates and times, and answers to frequently-asked questions, as well as information about state budget cuts and federal stimulus dollars.

With North Carolina’s budget outlook worsening daily, GCS Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green also sends weekly, sometimes daily, eMail messages about budget issues to staff members, so they hear it first from him, rather than the news.

While facts are important, school administrators should take the time to outline what they’re doing to support employees and how they’re trying to soften the blow by placing staff as positions become available through attrition.

Often, the tone matters more than the message. "As we continue to work through the economic crisis facing our nation, state, and community, I encourage each of you to take a moment or two to reflect on the good work you are doing, and the good work your colleagues are doing," wrote Green. "Then tell someone about it. While we can’t choose the situation we’re in, we can choose how we respond to it."

The district also eMailed a toolkit to principals and senior staff members that included information and tips about recognizing and managing anxiety, stress, and depression in students and staff. The information came from the National Association of School Psychologists and other credible mental health resources.

Empathy is important. Employees need to know their bosses care. Reeling from wave after wave of bad news, employees are going to feel frightened and frustrated. After receiving Green’s eMail message, an employee responded with the following:

"I don’t want much of your time; I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the eMail below. I am one of those employees whose future is uncertain due to the budget-driven reductions. I was starting to feel as though I was just a ‘line item’ and dollar amount for GCS (the media will make you feel that way). However, the timing of your eMail was just right; it made me feel hopeful. I appreciate you keeping us updated, and it is good to know the district is working diligently to find homes for us."

Employees who are being laid off now, or next school year, are going to feel hurt, angry, embarrassed, and a host of other emotions as they work through the pain and uncertainty of job loss and cycle through the grieving process. Others, often the ones employers really need to worry about, are simply going to shut down and go numb.

Students whose families have been caught in the economic tsunami are going to experience the same range of emotions and mental health challenges, and they might be more likely to act out in school. Providing students and staff with a safe place, time, and emotional support as they work through these issues will help them deal with stress in a healthy way and will promote healing.

When times are tough, most experts agree, leaders should try to "over-communicate." Districts also might need to activate their crisis response teams, deploying additional counselors and other supports to schools and departments that are particularly hard hit.

Sadly, when times are tough, mental health concerns escalate. Police and social service agencies in many communities are reporting more suicide attempts, domestic violence, and child abuse and neglect. While most educators rightly focus on student needs, it’s important to note that employees are not immune to these pressures.

As the school year winds down and we head into summer, we need to keep our doors and the lines of communication open, so we can continue to support the people who matter most: our students, their families, and our employees.