January/February 2021

Feature ArtPractical PR: Return, Respond, and Recover

By members of the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association

Our colleagues from the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association team up to share stories from the pandemic and thoughts on the future in this enhanced edition of the Journal’s regular Practical PR feature.
Return to the Classroom in St. Charles CUSD 303
When it became apparent in the spring that in-person learn­ing would not take place for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, St. Charles CUSD 303 began to focus on what learning would and could look like in the fall.
The pandemic offered the opportunity to re-imagine what school and education may be, allowing us to further lean into our core values of personalized, authentic, responsive, and com­petency-based learning for all students. We were committed to providing all students with access to a rigorous curriculum no matter the modality they chose — fully remote, hybrid, or in-person.
The Reopen D303 Task Force Committees comprised of over 100 people representing staff, parents, students, and community mem­bers worked in teams to guide the district and school board to create meaningful learning experiences in safe and healthy environments for staff and students, support the social/emotional needs of students, and effectively communicate deci­sions to the community.
Beginning in August, the district brought students into the build­ings using a tiered system starting
with students in grades K-2. The youngest learners needed addition­al time to become familiar with new technology, as well as the safe­ty protocols and procedures before students in 3-5 grades joined them at school. Middle and high school students attended small group orientations, which provided them with the opportunity to walk their classes and see the safety proce­dures prior to classes resuming. Early Childhood students also had two days of orientation aimed at getting them acclimated to their surroundings. While we believe that the safety protocols in our schools are working, we continue to follow guidelines put in place by the CDC, Illinois Department of Public Health, and the Kane County Health Department rela­tive to in-person learning.
The most important thing about communicating in these times is to provide regular updates and inform your stakeholders. The dis­trict created a page on the website dedicated to our Reopen Plan and let people know that we would update information every Mon­day. When the district released the Reopen Schools Plan, we simul­taneously posted a corresponding FAQ document that was updated based on questions we received from the public. We used social media to direct families to the web page that also included informa­tion from ISBE, the CDC, Kane County Health Department, and our mental health partners.
Superintendent Jason Pearson, Ed.D., wrote regular messages to families and sent video messages in the spring and again before the first day of school. In addition, we utilized Let’s Talk, which provides students, staff, and parents a way to send messages specific to inter­est areas such as Remote Learning or Reopen Schools Plan. Over the summer and into the fall, the district responded to more than 2,000 messages on this platform.

Carol L. Smith is Director of Communications and Community Relations for St. Charles CUSD 303 and 2020-2021 President of INSPRA.


Return to the Classroom in Yorkville CUSD 115
For the past few years, Yorkville CUSD 115 has been working towards developing personalized pathways for students. This has included the adoption of a new mastery-based learning and grading system, district-wide one-to-one device initiative, and blended course offerings that combine traditional classroom instruction with independent online learning. Although these initiatives were still in their relative infancy last March, they were imperative to enabling the district to transition to full remote learning for the end of the 2019-20 school year.
In a mid-summer survey, par­ents were divided on how they wanted their children to attend school in the fall. What they did agree on was the desire to choose the attendance method that was best for their family.
Superintendent Timothy Shimp, Ed.D., took the community’s message to heart and established six committees (academics, com­munications, health and wellness, human relations, operations, and student and family support) con­sisting of more than 100 employ­ees and parents. Over the summer months, the committees spent hundreds of hours to develop detailed plans so the district could offer all its K-12 students and educators a choice to attend school on-site, through e-learning, or in a hybrid of the two.
Survey results and feedback led to the revamping of communica­tion processes, many of which will continue even after the pandemic. Transparency and honest engage­ment with the community have been paramount and include

  • Multiple parent, student, and employee surveys

  • Numerous community, employee, and Board of Educa­tion presentations

  • Additional employee training days on new procedures and protocols

  • Consistent and complete email signature lines for all staff members

  • Simplified communications A dedicated day for send­ing principal and district e-newsletters

    • Reduction in the fre­quency of non-emer­gency communications (newsletters posted to the website for reference and to reduce redundancy of information)

    • Streamlining of learning management and commu­nication systems

    • New websites: We Are Yorkville (community resource site); 2020 Grad­uation (district subsite); and COVID-19/Transition Plan/2020-2021 School Year (district subsites)

    • Transition plan and work of all six committees

    • FAQ pages developed from questions submitted through a website portal

    • Student schedules and calendars

  • How-to technology videos
  • District communications and meeting/presentation videos
  • A 100-plus page Employee Playbook
  • Video conferencing for par­ent-teacher conferences
  • Livestreaming of public meet­ings
  • Health status updates at all dis­trict community/parent council meetings and Board of Educa­tion meetings
  • Mental health and community resources (on the district website and social media channels)
  • Template letters to notify fam­ilies of classroom relocations and presumed/positive cases
  • An emphasis on gratitude and recognitions

Most important has been com­municating from the onset that in order to provide choice, the district would likely need to make adjustments throughout the year. This combined acceptance of the possibility of change has given the district the flexibility to adapt to fluctuating circumstances/man­dates without losing the commu­nity’s trust and support.
The community has been extremely appreciative of the dis­trict continuing to offer student choice. Consistent messaging has successfully communicated the necessity of offering on-site instruction for the mental health, education, and physical health of students. With the community’s ongoing support and transparent communication from the district, Yorkville CUSD 115 students are able to continue their aca­demic growth safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristine Liptrot, APR is Director of Communications and Community Engagement for Yorkville CUSD 115 and INSPRA Past President.


Silver Linings in Crystal Lake CCSD 47
In life, we can choose to focus on the storms or the silver lining in the clouds. While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our lives in numerous ways for the majority of 2020, it is important to reflect on the impact of this pandemic and lessons learned along the way.
First and foremost, clear, con­sistent two-way communication is key during a crisis. Early on, Crys­tal Lake CCSD 47 set up a dedi­cated email address for parents and staff to ask questions and funneled these questions to the appropriate departments to assist in commu­nication and planning efforts. We also committed to communicating regularly with families and staff; we sent weekly emails to families typically on Fridays and set up a weekly Q&A via Zoom for staff. While we didn’t always have the answers, we shared what we knew at the time and when we expected to know more. We also shared parent communications with our administrative team and staff prior to sending these messages to families. This allowed our internal stakeholders (principals and teach­ers) to be “in-the-know” and ade­quately prepared to field questions.
Other communication tactics included setting up a dedicated COVID-19 web page and creating a staff and family health and safety reference guide. We received pos­itive feedback about our commu­nication efforts despite not always pleasing everyone with our deci­sions. This solidified the value of proactive communication as well as the importance of prioritizing internal communication with our key stakeholders.
Other “silver linings” District 47 experienced throughout this pandemic pertain to the impact of technology. Staff learning tech­nology on-the-go created a teach­ing and learning environment of empathy and understanding in which students saw their teach­ers as learners. It also developed everyone’s ability to problem-solve on-the-fly, building resilience in both teachers and students. Lastly, remote learning engaged a subset of students with school anxiety/ refusal allowing them to succeed at rates we haven’t seen before.
While there are many things about 2020 that we wouldn’t want to repeat, some of these silver lin­ings will forever change the way we view ourselves as educators and communicators and will alter our practices moving forward.

Kathy J. Hinz, Ed.D., is Superintendent of Crystal Lake CCSD 47. Denise Barr is Director of Communications and Public Engagement there and a member of the INSPRA Board.


Silver Linings in Maine THSD 207
COVID-19 is a crisis of epic pro­portions. It has killed more than 270,000 Americans and more than 1.5 million people worldwide. It has also taken an extreme mental, physical, and emotional toll on billions of people.
Mr. Rogers said this about cri­sis situations: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
In my opinion, that could not be more true in schools. From teach­ers to administrators to boards of education, the vast majority are trying to be helpers. One small example occurred in District 207.
When schools closed in March, we knew students with food insecurities and other profound needs would require help. Just like many districts, we provided meals. In addition, we decided to raise money to help families.
We put a communications plan together and utilized our web­site, social media, news releases, and other strategies to get the word out. We created an easy to remember link: bit/ly.207strong. We partnered with our educa­tional foundation and our teach­er’s union. We created a video to show the impact of the donations. We also researched famous/influ­ential graduates and asked them to share the link and consider donating.
As of December, the district sur­passed $100,000 raised and nearly all of the funds raised have been distributed to families. The money is distributed in the form of $50 gift cards so families identified by counselors can purchase food and/or household items from local businesses.
Maine West High School Asso­ciate Principal Claudia Rueda-Al­varez summed up the project: “$50 is not a lot of money, however, the families are so grateful,” she said. “That gratitude is a reminder that many of us are in very secure plac­es but a lot of our families are not.” Profound words from one of the many helpers in District 207 and in schools across the country.

Brett Clark, APR, is Director of Communications for Maine THSD 207 and a member of the INSPRA Board.


Remote Learning in Schaumburg CCSD 54
Schaumburg School District 54 lives by the motto: Connect-En­gage-Support.
While some students returned to in-person instruction this fall, other families elected to have their children remain in remote learn­ing. Some staff have been working from home for just as long.
Connecting and supporting began before the March closure. District 54 communicated with families and staff as early as Febru­ary, sharing steps we were taking to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and communicating the possibility of remote learning.
We also worked behind the scenes. We developed systems to provide food and Wi-Fi hotspots to financially struggling families. We created a VLearning website with video tutorials explaining how to use SeeSaw, Google, and other technology platforms.
Our foundation further sup­ported families affected by the pandemic by launching a Crisis Fund to meet additional needs.
In each COVID-19 mes­sage, we talk about ensuring the well-being of students and staff. The need to “connect, engage, and support” the social-emotional well-being of students and staff is as important as their academic success.
We developed a Parent Resources website with tips on behavior management, managing anxiety, and other mental health resources. We rewrote the social-emotional learning curric­ulum to focus on the ideas of stay­ing connected and engaged while remote.
Our employees were both part of these solutions and a focus of our work. District 54 hosted remote planning days, a virtual induction week, summer profes­sional development (attended by more than 1,700 staff), and pro­grams focused on staff self-care. Our staff also helped us share the “Connect-Engage-Support” mes­sage through their interactions with students and families, written communications, and social media platforms (search #54StaysCon­nected or #54StepsUp on Twitter for examples).
We cannot predict what the future may bring, but we can remain committed to our motto and our message of connecting, engaging, and supporting our staff, students, and families.

Terri McHugh, APR, is Executive Director of Community Relations for Schaumburg CCSD 54 and a member of the Board for INSPRA.


Remote Learning in East Aurora School District 131
Since March 2020, our community has experienced a COVID-19 positivity rate con­sistently measuring two to three times the state average. East Aurora’s board of education made the decision to prioritize health, and our PK-12 district has imple­mented remote learning since the school year began.
One strategy that has paid dividends was to commit to imple­menting full remote for an entire  quarter. This allowed our families, teachers, and students to create a routine and depend on a set sched­ule, rather than jumping from hybrid to remote and back again Everyone benefited from consisten­cy and a set routine.
Another strategy was commu­nicating early enough to allow families time to make plans. Our goal was to provide families 30 days’ notice when announcing a schedule change. For example, on July 31 we announced our deci­sion to go full remote for the first quarter of school, giving families 30 days to arrange child care. We made no last-minute shifts or changes, which families very much appreciated. While the pandemic has brought many disruptions beyond our families’ control, pro­viding a consistent plan for school has eased their burden.
Our district set up an email account specifically for return-to-school questions. When hundreds of emails were received, our dis­trict set up a large team of district and building administrators who divided up questions and personal­ly respond to every email.
Teams were set up to ensure critical student needs were met. We provided over 400,000 meals to students at school sites and bus stops throughout the east side of Aurora. Through the commit­ment of our board of education, all students, from preschool to high school, were issued a device for remote learning. Through a partnership with T-Mobile, all students have an equal oppor­tunity to learn at home, with district-issued mobile hotspot devices for families.
By far the most important aspect of our communication during the pandemic has been leading with empathy. Phone calls to families included “Hey, how is your family doing?” or “I bet your kindergartner is excited for school to begin” before get­ting to the business at hand. Our superintendent, Jennifer Norrell, modeled empathy while effectively using video to speak directly to stakeholders when making major announcements, expressing empa­thy for families, students, and teachers. Our community needed to feel that the district genuinely cares about them.

Tom Jackson, APR, is a Public Relations Officer with East Aurora School District 131 and a member of the INSPRA.


Focus on the Future in Community High School District 99
We don’t know when it will happen, but the COVID crisis will clear. We’re looking forward to the time when we livestream classes and meetings in a pinch — not as a regular way of life.
The impact of the pandemic has been significant on everyone. Many students feel isolated and are struggling or unmotivated. Teach­ers are stressed, straddling remote and in-person schedules. Families feel helpless, troubleshooting Wi-Fi issues, and how to support students. Administrators are frus­trated with disjointed direction from the experts. It’s not all doom and gloom — there are silver lin­ings — but the long-term conse­quences of COVID-19 are sure to be real. No one is immune.
At a time when we are all beyond fatigued and worried, we at District 99 are starting to plan for life post-COVID. A first step to creating any solid plan is research. We issued a back-to-school sur­vey in September and a follow-up survey in November. We will issue two more surveys in the spring. In the surveys, we question students, teachers, staff, and families on a variety of topics. We ask about communication and whether peo­ple are receiving what they need. We ask about the pros and cons of remote learning and in-person learning.
Feedback is helping us adjust in the short-term. For example, we’ve learned that although our teachers are holding office hours, few students are taking advantage. We’ll promote the office hours to families, who can encourage their students to attend if they’re stuck. We’re also asking about emotional health and measuring levels of connectedness with others. The results will spark ideas for how to recover long after the crisis is over. Armed with feedback, we are better positioned to respond with programs to foster academic, social, and emotional recovery. By conducting research today, we will lead our district forward on a path for all to heal.

Jill Browning, APR, Director of Communications for Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove and an INSPRA Board Member.


Focus on the Future in Evergreen Park ESD 124
Effective and transparent com­munication during a “normal” school year is essential for getting your school district’s story out to the public.
Districts have formulated fairly detailed crisis communications plans. They were at the ready for communicating during an unex­pected incident. Nothing could have prepared the district for an ongoing national tragedy and the level of planning necessary when the whole world turned upside down.
Instead of providing the sto­ries of a district, communications directors were called on to com­municate the district’s stories from the lens of a proactive response to challenging times. Districts were suddenly required to communi­cate the complex plans necessary to coordinate ongoing educational opportunities for the children within the community. During this time, the “rules” kept chang­ing; sometimes within a 24-hour period. Throw in competing polit­ical viewpoints and the water real­ly gets muddied. In fact, school districts were subject to a crisis within a crisis.
Nine months in and school districts are continuously re-evalu­ating their response by consulting a myriad of public sources including the CDC, and state, county, and local health departments. Medical associations have weighed in and as a result, the communications direc­tor has become a daily researcher, reviewer, and verifier. Check, check, and cross-check has become the mantra of individuals commu­nicating the district’s message.
What we now know is stu­dents thrive when they are in an educational environment which, balances educational rigor with social-emotional health. As dis­tricts continue to operate in a multi-faceted learning environ­ment, effective ongoing planning and communication has become imperative.
If communicating during a pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s that there’s always more work to do.
The first rule of successful public relations is to be proactive, not reactive, but all bets were off when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Sure, many districts had crisis communications plans in place, but we’d be kidding our­selves to say we were fully prepared for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, we reacted. Districts across the state creat­ed Remote Learning webpages, COVID-19 Dashboards, FAQs, self-certification forms, and any­thing else we could think of to keep our families informed during the “unprecedented times” we kept mentioning.
It’s been nine months. Now is the time to determine if what you’ve been doing is serving its purpose, and if so, how well is it working?
Here’s the formula: Research, Plan, Implement, Evaluate. It’s OK if you started from Step 3 in March, but this time, let’s do it right.
Should your self-certification forms be digital? Is your dash­board transparent? Do you need more tech tips on your Remote Learning page? Find a way to measure the effectiveness of what you’re doing, make the necessary tweaks, and develop a plan to roll out your changes strategically.
You may be back at the imple­mentation stage, where you likely started, but this is Round 2, and this time you’re going to nail it!

Margaret W. Longo is Interim Superintendent at Evergreen Park ESD 124. Alex Mayster, APR, is Director of Communications there and President-Elect of INSPRA.
Practical PR is a collaboration between the Illinois Chapter of the National School Public Relations Association and the Illinois School Board Journal. Resources associated with this article can be accessed at bit.ly/JF21Jres.