Reopening School: How to Reduce Your Community’s Fears
COVID-19 has shown itself to be a formidable adversary, with its destruction costing our nation lives and livelihoods at rates that very few thought possible. It disrupted education as schools were forced into emergency remote learning, and it has created more questions than answers as we try to reemerge as a nation.
Although the specifics are still being worked through, many communities will be reopening schools for the 2020–2021 school year. Not at the same time. Not at the same rate. And not with the same ways of learning. But plans are emerging to do this in a healthy and humane way.
However, there is still fear that surrounds the return to schools throughout the country, and fear creates a powerful narrative. None of the plans we make as educators will be possible unless we help the families we serve feel that returning to school is safe. We need to support families through their fear and change the narrative so that parents, caregivers, and students feel comfortable that they are making the right choices.
What Messages Should Parents Be Hearing About Reopening School?
- Healthy Schools Are Essential
This is always an essential message for schools, but it should remain at the core of your communication to families as they return to school in the fall. Begin by making it clear that you are basing your decisions on the guidance of your local authorities and health departments.
You should also make sure that you are talking about the physical health of students in union with their mental health needs. This return to school will be more stressful than in the past. Along with a fear of contagion, students will be worried about social distancing and following new rules — all combined with the normal social stressors of school. It will be essential that you outline how you are prepared to support the health of the whole child as they return.
- We Are Prepared for the Challenges
A humble confidence should be part of the clear message you share with families. Though you might not have the optimal plan on day one, you should lead with the confidence that you’re prepared to open safely and pivot quickly as necessary. You will have read the guidance, received feedback from stakeholders, spent time planning the details, considered alternatives, and will be bringing to the table the best plan based on the current conditions for your community.
Let it be known that there are still some unknowns, but lead with confidence and ask your community for patience as you learn your way through this return together. Acknowledge that challenges will continue to arise, but reassure families that your school and district are ready for a variety of future scenarios.
- Learning Happens Best in Community
It is important that we promote the value of gathering in person as part of the school experience. Many schools and districts have done incredible work with emergency remote learning, but it doesn’t match the experience of gathering as a community to collaborate, discuss, and explore ideas. This happens best when teachers and students are in the same location. This doesn’t mean that we can’t modernize the school experience, and it doesn’t mean that virtual and blended learning can’t be powerful, but families need to hear the importance of coming back together in a single location for the purpose of meaningful learning.
- All Families Have Unique Needs
The diversity of every school community makes it stronger, and all families have a different level of comfort about returning to school. Some families may want to wait a few weeks to see how it goes, some families may want to go virtual-only for a period of time, and other families may have acute health situations that make their situation more complex. By talking openly and acknowledging the spectrum of comfort levels that families may have, you make it clear that you have empathy for every family’s reality.
By showing this empathy, you open doors to conversations about how to craft individualized learning experiences for those that need it. You’ll want to continue to plan for a variety of scenarios, and then let families know that they have different options for return. This will reduce the pressure and stress on many families.
How Should Families Be Hearing These Messages?
As with any new initiative, you will need to make your voice heard loud and clear throughout your community. Use as many different platforms and partnerships as you can to get your message out.
- Open House
The new school guidelines for distancing and safety create a tremendous amount of unknown, and it is difficult for people to feel comfortable in spaces where there is unknown. To make caregivers and students more comfortable, schools should find ways to conduct open-house opportunities, either virtually or in person. Ideas include the following:
- Post images of the new routines and room arrangements on social media, or create a Google slide deck that focuses on one school area per slide and explains the new procedures.
- Create a video walk-through of the building, and then email it to parents and post it on your social media accounts.
- Have each teacher do a video for their incoming class, which includes an introduction and a walk-through of their room and the procedures. If your staff will be wearing masks, this will be a good opportunity for teachers to show both their full face on video and their face in a mask so students can get more comfortable with that idea.
- Hold a series of Zoom meetings with parents where the principal or superintendent does a walk-through of the building and explains the new safety measures.
- Organize small groups of parents to tour the building, walking them through the motions of what a typical day will be like.
- Clear Guidelines in Print Form
Without a media marketing strategy, rumors, misinformation, and inaccuracy have a tendency to grow quickly. Begin by seeking input from your staff when creating your plan to help them feel vested in the message. Next, hold training sessions and provide your staff with clear talking points about your final plan for reopening your school.
Then, create clear guidelines and information about returning to school in a variety of print formats, including infographics, one-page FAQs, and social media posts. Make sure your messages are translated into all languages to serve the needs of the district.
This is the time to consider the 10 things that everyone should know, establish clear language around these items, and begin to layer the frequency that people see these messages between now and day one.
- Testimonials from Public Health Officials
Trusted voices can’t be left on the sidelines. This is a time to get public health officials to speak positively about the safety of your school buildings and the schools’ plans for instruction. This is also a good time to get parents who are health professionals to speak up and let other parents know that they see a clear path to return. You can also ask school nurses to talk about their role in establishing and maintaining healthy schools. Use the power of video to capture these testimonials, and then make sure that all avenues of communication are used to get these messages into the community.
- Contingency Plans
Make it clear to families that things will probably change throughout the first semester. There may be setbacks caused by illness or measures taken to ensure community health. Be clear and honest about this reality, and then speak about your contingency plans for if and when your school has to close short-term. Talk about procedures for clearing buses and schools, isolating sick students or staff, and maintaining a continuity to deliver instruction. This is also a good time to talk about how you are working to maximize the health of the staff members working in your schools.
- Videos of Students at School Learning
The messages to families should continue throughout the first weeks of school and beyond. It will be important to capture the reality of the learning environment. Student testimonials about how they are glad to be back in school and how the school day feels safe, healthy, and comforting can be an important part of helping the community see the realities of school for now. It will also help to reduce fear. Students have essential voices that need to be heard. Their feedback will help all of us craft better plans going forward and unite the community around the mission of supporting students.
Continue to Look Toward a Brighter Future
As an educator, researcher, and an educational space designer, I can assure you that we can design safe spaces that allow for quality learning experiences as long as we base our work in science and on the recommendations of health officials. We must also remain adaptable to the ever-changing conditions on the ground; the adaptations we are making now won’t be the last, but they are necessary for now. If we partner together to serve the students in our community, we can look at our current plans as a gateway to innovation so that schools can continue to be nurturing places for all students.