How School Leaders Should Communicate With Families About Reopening Schools

by | Aug 31, 2020


Due to the novelty of COVID-19, families and educators have received heaps of new information and recommendations every day as researchers continue to learn more about the virus. Unfortunately, nothing about the 2020-2021 school year will be simple as we work to nourish students’ mental, physical, and emotional health in a continuously changing climate. Here is some advice for your communications with parents about the upcoming school year:

  1. Be honest about the fluid nature of the situation.

Although you may feel tempted to use an overly reassuring tone in your communications with parents, the best way to cultivate long-term trusting relationships is to be honest. Let parents know that:

  • Unfortunately, black and white answers aren’t available for many coronavirus FAQs — Even the CDC’s FAQ page about COVID-19 explains that virus “is thought to spread mainly from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks” (emphasis added to the word “thought”).
  • Your team is actively tracking the local health situation, and may adapt its plan depending on COVID-19 updates — Assume that many parents are unaware of the novelty of this virus, and clearly explain why a rigid reopening plan would be unrealistic right now.
  • You will consistently update them with new information — Be specific, and let parents know exactly how and when you plan to communicate coronavirus-related updates with them. Let them know where they can get more information if they want it, such as on your school’s website or through a local health hotline. Let them know how to contact you with questions, and if you think your team’s response time may be delayed, tell them how long they should expect to wait before hearing back.
  1. Get straight to the point about safety guidelines.

Some parents may be interested in the research used to inform your safety guidelines, but many will only have time to read the most pressing information relevant to their children. When writing your back-to-school letter and additional communications, first list the health guidelines parents need to know and follow, and then include further information for those who want to learn more.

Here are some tips for communicating your health guidelines:
  • Be very clear and specific — Don’t leave room for misunderstanding. For example, if your school will require students to wear masks, offer specific guidance about the mask’s required fit, materials, and how it must be worn.
  • Use images and analogies where you can — Diagrams, how-to graphics, and other images may help illustrate your health policies, especially for parents who may not read English fluently. Analogies may also help parents feel more confident with new health requirements. For example, you may compare wearing a mask to wearing a seatbelt.
  • Break guidelines down into bullet points — Bullet points help make lengthy text less intimidating for parents who aren’t interested in reading in-depth materials. Try to keep each point as concise as possible. Remember, you can always include supplemental information below, your list of guidelines if you feel like you need to add more.
  1. Make sure all communications are accessible to everyone.

Remember that people communicate in different ways. Here are some tips to ensure your communications pieces are accessible for everyone:

  • Offer translations of each piece in all languages spoken in your area — Make sure materials are translated by people who speak the languages fluently (as opposed to using an app like Google Translate) so nothing is lost in translation.
  • Offer audio versions of each piece — This doesn’t have to be expensive or extremely high-quality. You can record yourself reading each communication piece with the voice memo app on your smartphone or the free version of the Zoom app on your computer.
  • Distribute communications through a variety of channels — These could include physical mail, text messages, and emails. Remember that some parents won’t have access to a reliable internet connection at their homes, and may not have smartphones which connect to internet browsers or email.
  1. Develop a system for your school leaders to continually track the local health situation, and hold yourself accountable for using it.

Because we know so little definitive information about COVID-19, we should expect researchers to continue to update their health and safety recommendations as they learn more. Assume that many parents will not know how to find accurate information about the virus, and that your communication pieces are the only resources they are using to guide their students’ safety actions.

To keep your staff and students safe, you must stay up-to-date on:
  • How and where the virus is spreading in your area
  • Research on how the virus spreads from person to person
  • Research on effective prevention and treatment strategies
  • Misinformation about the virus, such as fake news articles which become popular in your area

Take action now to decide which of your staff members will be responsible for tracking this information, how the information will be dispersed, and how frequently your team can realistically keep parents updated on health and safety practices. Also decide how your team will hold itself accountable for using this new system.

  1. If you need more advice for reopening your school or district, this fall, set up a free call with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions.

CSAS provides customized professional development and strategic supports for your school leaders, including principals, district leaders, and state education departments. Schedule a free call with one of our expert consultants to discuss your concerns related to reopening schools, communicating with parents, and supporting teachers through this transition.