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School Communications and COVID-19: A Pandemic Year in Review

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic. In the weeks and months that followed, school communicators and leaders have worked endlessly on COVID communications and response plans. In our conversations with leaders, we talked about a 12-24 month sustained crisis with no return to normal. We even made the decision to not use the words “new normal.” The only option was moving forward. School communicators are behind-the-scenes warriors in this pandemic. It continues to be our privilege to support schools through these uncertain and unprecedented times. 

Leading with Empathy

Across the country, COVID challenged organizations to reinvent their service delivery model. Those who successfully pivoted prioritized employee health, well-being, communication and collaboration.

“We know that education is a people business, and relationships are everything,” shared Dr. Nate Rudolph, superintendent in Cambridge-Isanti Schools. “No learning happens without relationships — among students, staff, administrators, schools and their communities. Relationships are everything, and you can’t build relationships without empathy, compassion and communication.”

“Patience and grace” defined spring and summer. “We started out asking for patience and grace, but we also had to remind our staff to give themselves grace. We have hard-working people with high expectations who want to bring their best for every student, every day. Every employee was asked to do their jobs differently. They had a lot of concerns and questions about how we would pull this off,” Rudolph said. Taking the time to talk through challenges and working collaboratively with teacher leaders and union stewards, C-I Schools leaders remained focused on their Bluejacket Way with responsibility, self-discipline, honesty, respect and compassion.

Direct, District Level COVID Communications

“One thing we realized,” noted Emily Buss, communications supervisor for District 196, “is though it was relatively straightforward for families to find information at the county or state level, what they wanted was much more timely, clear information directly from the district.” 

Key determining factors on the District 196 COVID-19 Dashboard




To help the district reach students, families and staff, CEL worked with the district to develop an accessible, mobile-friendly dashboard that provides updated COVID-related information every Thursday. It’s on the district website as well as each school’s site with key factors influencing decision-making and learning models. 

“When there are updates, we post to social media and tailor the messages per platform, directing them to the hub,” describes Buss. “It’s a go-to spot for the community, and we can definitely see it in the analytics. The dashboard gets huge hits when we post updates.”

An Easy-To-Update COVID Communications Hub

CEL also developed a COVID dashboard for Hopkins Public Schools. “We were getting ready to launch a new website with the district,” explains Chelsea Janke, director of client and school services at CEL, “but we developed and got the dashboard online first and later rolled it into the new website.”

Hopkins Learning Updates

Hopkins had a pressing need for a better way to communicate, and their old website wasn’t allowing them to do so. They wanted a very clean, responsive dashboard that’s easy to update. “Where we could, we minimized words and used graphics and visuals. The dashboard has a focus on accessibility,” Chelsea added.

Learning Models 2020-2021

Generating Community Feedback

If you have ever met Superintendent Ben Barton, you know that Ben is all about teamwork. At times, the district has involved some 200 people from employees to parents in planning how to return to learn. Their Princeton Playbook for this year was a collaborative venture. The district maintains a regular cadence for communications — weekly to staff and biweekly to parents — and provides an extensive range of resources on their Family Resources website.

And their community has noticed. When Princeton Public Schools asked the Morris Leatherman Company to conduct a community survey in December 2020 at the height of the pandemic, they were pleasantly surprised by the results. As reported to their Board in January and in the Tiger Times, results include: 

People expressed strong support for how the District has handled the pandemic; 86% of respondents rate the District’s implementation of COVID-19 protocols as excellent or good, and 90% of respondents believe the district has communicated well throughout the COVID planning and response. More importantly, most people think we are continuing to do a good job meeting all students’ needs—results on this question were two times higher than the average for districts surveyed in Minnesota during the pandemic. We know things aren’t perfect, but our staff is focused on meeting student needs, and it appears as though the efforts are appreciated.

Timely and informative communications to staff, students and families have been critical for school districts during the past year. Our kudos to all districts and schools for weathering this sustained crisis and emerging with newfound creativity and resilience.


Published on: March 4, 2021