The Communication Challenge from COVID19
The education system is facing an unprecedented situation as the coronavirus COVID19 crisis deepens. The Government’s call to close schools but to still provide care for vulnerable children and those of key workers has led to major planning issues for education leaders, from staffing levels, provision of meals to providing education for pupils attending and at home.
The key to navigating through this challenging set of circumstances, as it is so often, is quality communication. The goal for education leaders at present is to recognise the various parties that require communication and to plan for how and when that should occur. The following are some suggestions and solutions:
The Staff Team
Regular formal communication – via email
Email remains the tool of choice for when it comes to making communication formal and official. It is the ideal format for sending out information about staff rotas, information about jobs and tasks that will still need to be completed by staff whilst working from home and other updates from authorities, or Government, about the ongoing coronavirus crisis and national response. Email can be kept on in the background and is a well understood medium for communication – but make sure it is used wisely in order for it to be at its most effective: my blog on email management has more ideas on this.
I have been in almost daily telephone conversation with my deputy, and regular phone contact with a host of other key colleagues. Picking up the phone and having voice-to-voice contact has the advantage of bringing the conversational aspects of communication alive and it’s a great way of keeping in touch whilst running ideas past one another and getting a quick response.
Conference calls and video conferencing
Conference calls are great for bringing together people for a group conversation or meeting without having to physically gather. This is perfect during these times where social distancing is required. Conference calls have worked perfectly well where there is a limited number of contributors, such as my senior team and I. They have been an ideal tool for discussions and agreements around practical arrangements to do with organising the hub school rotas and other such administrative jobs. Online video conferencing, through platforms such as Zoom and Teams has been an invaluable way of managing much larger “distance” meetings and as well as allowing for opportunity for a wider staff team to discuss work related issues, the visual element adds a personal touch which otherwise might be lost.
We have our first “full” staff team meeting using Zoom lined up for the near future, and this will begin with some “rules” being set out – everyone muted… raise a hand to speak or get invited in to speak… stick to the agenda… a host to administrate and facilitate…. etc. Don’t underestimate the importance of setting out these sorts of expectations as without them everyone will just be speaking over one another and one or two participants may be relegated to the position of “passenger.” Remember – for most school staff, video conferencing will be a relatively new experience.
Think carefully before using platforms such as Zoom with pupils though. Chris Dyson (@chrisdysonHT) has more to say about this in his recent article in the TES.
A staff WhatsApp group, and other groupings such as Senior Leadership Team, can be a quick, easy and informal way of keeping in touch. My advice for education leaders is to maintain a professional persona in such a group – I’m included in the staff group and drop in from time-to-time to celebrate the great work that my staff have been doing in their hub schools or to send little messages such as “have a great weekend.” It can be all too easy to fall for the informal nature of WhatsApp and start writing things that you may not have physically said; so avoid that trap. All in all, I’ve found the WhatsApp communication to be really fruitful, and the instantaneous nature is a huge advantage.
The School Community
In my schools we’ve tried to stay as visible as a school as we can whilst closed. This has included a recognition that the workforce has been redeployed into child-care based “hubs” and has a different set of expectations now heaped upon it. The usual job of day-to-day teaching simply cannot happen – but we can and do attempt to stay in touch with our families and offer support for them through this difficult time.
Our approach has been as diverse as we can make it. We have developed what we’d argue is a comprehensive home-learning offer. It’s as widely available as we can make it – through our website and social media channels and we’ve tried hard to give an offering that has as few barriers to access as possible. For us, that’s meant devising challenges and tasks that don’t require significant resources from home or computer access. We’ve been regular and consistent in how we’ve updated our offer (for example, we haven’t allowed one class to send out updates on one day, another class on another day – we’ve been a team and we do everything together. That consistency is important in making the communications crystal clear for our parents and pupils.)
Our home-learning offer is also non-mandatory. We recognise that some parents will feel more comfortable than others with the notion of home education. Some will have different time pressures and some will have different levels of confidence. So it’s there if people want it. And we’ve encouraged parents to send in examples of anything they do with their children so that we can celebrate it on our website and retain the sense of community and connectedness that my schools are so well known for.
We’ve been recording short clips which we’ve uploaded through our website and social media channels to speak directly to our children and parents. It may feel a little gimmicky, but the feedback has been positive as it helps maintain that sense of togetherness and presence. It just requires a bit of bravery in the first instance!
The longer the school closures continue, the closer my staff will move towards escalating our “keeping in touch” response. We’ll move to teaching-staff at the schools making regular welfare phone calls to check if pupils have everything they need and sending out packs to homes if people need resources. We’ve already kept in touch with some parents via phone calls, those with specific requirements for example, and it’s also how we’ve continued to safeguard our more vulnerable families and pupils (and fulfil our safeguarding duties).
The teachers are currently working on a “class newsletter” which we’ll be sending home after Easter. We hope this will be seen as a welcome personal touch, but more importantly, that it demonstrates that the teachers and school have not forgotten their pupils.
The key, for me, is to also keep communication clear, consistent and above all else – positive. Staff, pupils and the wider community will be looking towards education leaders for reassurance, guidance and leadership during these times. A smile, a positive tone and a proactive message can be far more powerful than perhaps you realise.