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When COVID strikes your school: communication and management strategies

May, 2021

Vaughan Couillault, Principal of Papatoetoe High School, shares his experience of navigating an outbreak of COVID that directly impacts a school and community.

Papatoetoe High School, a co-educational year 9–13 school in South Auckland, was thrust into the limelight during the February 2021 COVID outbreak. At 11.30am on February 14th Vaughan received, “a very unpleasant phone call from a very lovely person” and embarked on, “a month’s worth of pain.” A representative of Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) notified Vaughan that there was a student with a positive COVID result at the school and there would be an announcement by the Director General Ashley Bloomfield that afternoon. Vaughan was advised that he would be able to notify the school community thirty minutes prior to the official announcement, giving him about two hours to co-construct a communication with ARPHS.

Communication

Papatoetoe High School uses the School-links Emergency ALERTS system incorporating an app for school leaders to send texts to all parents and students directly from their mobile phones. At 1.15pm Vaughan used the app to text an alert to notify parents and students of the situation and to check their emails for further information. Synced to the school’s student management system, texting ensured that the message got out to everyone prior to the Director General naming Papatoetoe High School as a location of interest, “The Emergency ALERTS system was easy to use and at my fingertips. I’d had it on my phone since we signed up with School-links, and I’d used it during the second lockdown back in August.”

For the next four days, the school consistently used the same approach to communications: a text alert advising recipients to check their email accounts. By the 18th, the school moved to email and Facebook as the pace of communication changed and the community became more attuned to checking social media for updates.

School staff received the information aligned to the families, with the professional ramifications explained so that they were all clear on what was required of them.

As the outbreak progressed and the net was cast wider to include student households, Vaughan and the team relied more and more on the school Facebook page to communicate to the community, “We have since had feedback from local businesses that they looked to our Facebook page rather than the Ministry of Health website or Healthline. It made sense as we were in direct contact with the ARPHS who actually make the decisions on the ground, and we could get the latest updates out that bit faster than the Ministry of Health.”

From the beginning of the situation, Vaughan made a conscious decision that the school should manage communications, “We’ve got the relationship with the families and I felt that communicating with them was our responsibility.” So, whilst the Ministry of Education assisted with security and traffic management at school, and ARPHS concentrated on testing and track and trace, Papatoetoe High School did what a school can do best and sought to keep families up to date and reassured, “We were very contactable and approachable. Any questions people could call me – and one minute after sending that first text I had my first phone call!”

Vaughan also worked with the media, “For the same reason, I wanted to be the person that the community could see, someone they knew. I kept to the facts and if I was asked a question that I couldn’t answer, I would go away and check. We had a lot of support.”

Vaughan also drafted in the school’s student leaders to get key messages out, “We had a team of students that we could trust, and again the families knew them.”

Management

In the first few hours, alongside spreading the word, the school needed to establish a testing centre onsite. The school leadership team was designated ‘essential service status’ and six members of staff formed a work bubble and were permitted to physically meet onsite, with the pre-requisite masks and social distancing. Priority testing was also made available for the senior leadership team, “Throughout the crisis, I could get tested at 9am and have my results back by lunchtime.”

Arriving at school at 7am, with the assistance of the onsite staff, the ARPHS were able to open the onsite testing centre and start swabbing by 9am.

Going forward, each member of the senior leadership team took on a responsibility, “One was in charge of making sure all the students had devices, one liaised with ARPHS track and trace and so on. We worked relentlessly but it wasn’t stressful. We were all quite calm and felt that we had control of the situation.”

One of the key takeaways for Vaughan was that from the time the school gets the dreaded phone call, the school is going to be dealing with the implications for the next month, “You can’t freak out. You just have to accept it will be a month before business as usual and manage the situation. If you don’t, it will be even longer.”

For Papatoetoe High School, this realisation came on the day after the school re-opened on the 22nd. On the Monday everyone who had a test and a negative result was allowed to return to school, and the school successfully screened students on entry watching out for the small numbers yet to be tested or awaiting results. The following day at 11.30am news came through that another student and her siblings had tested positive and everyone needed to be retested, “It was groundhog day. We texted all the families an emergency alert, sent emails and put the announcement on our Facebook page. We kept students at school until 3.15pm, staying in the same classroom that they had been in when we got the announcement. We re-opened our testing station, and at 1.45pm I was the crash test dummy having the first test. We started swabbing at 1.50pm.”

The decision to keep the students at school caused some consternation as misinformation spread about forcing the students to get tested but Vaughan, his reception staff and senior leadership team personally met or spoke with concerned parents to allay any fears.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, Vaughan became an expert on the cycles of the virus, “It is useful for schools to know that there is no point getting tested until five days after exposure. Also until five days have passed you are unlikely to be contagious, and this gives you a bit of a window to work with. You don’t need to panic, you have time to put things in order.”

The other eye opener was how a disease outbreak is administered from the government end. The regional public health service runs everything locally, reporting their decisions back to the Ministry of Health who disseminate it through their national channels of communication, meaning that there can be a disconnect for short periods of time, “I’d advise schools to get to know who you can talk to within your regional public health service and work closely with them. Don’t be a barrier, focus on creating a solution – and hopefully you can limit the fallout to four weeks, rather than six.”

Papatoetoe High School re-opened on March 8th with heartfelt messages from its student leaders calling on people to be kind, and Vaughan’s thanks for support and donations, shared across mainstream media. In Vaughan’s words, “You use every tool you’ve got to communicate – text, email and Facebook.” And even the media itself.

Vaughan is happy for schools to contact him for further advice or information.

Winter means weather closures. How will you get your message out?

May, 2021

Question: with winter fast approaching and extreme weather seemingly the norm these days, how are you going to contact your school community in an emergency?

Answer:

Don’t use an app or social media. Do you know how many parents have downloaded your school app or use Facebook? It varies from school to school, but we estimate between only 30 and 60%.

Do use a tried and tested text-based system such as School-links with receipt rates in the high 90%s. No matter if parents have mobile data, access to wifi or credit on their phone, the alert will get through.

Do use a system that syncs with your SMS, ensuring that your contact information is up to date.

Do use a proven and reputable company with NZ-based support. Your emergency response is too important to take risks with.

As Winter approaches, ask yourself can you guarantee that parents and caregivers are going to receive your emergency communications fast and reliably, every time?

Five benefits of an Early Notification (EN) Attendence Management System over a school messaging app

May, 2021

What is ‘Early Notification’?

An Early Notification (EN) system is much more than a school messaging app. EN is the use of text and/or email messages from the school to the parents to alert caregivers to an unexplained absence from school, not an app for parents to let the school know that a student will be absent.

Benefits for a school of using an EN System

1. Saves time and money.

Early Notification Webinar

The Attendence Officer simply selects the students with an unexplained absence in the Student Management System (SMS). The SMS assembles a file with student names and caregiver contact details and sends it to the EN provider (e.g. School-links) who then distributes the EN messages via text/email. These messages are normally received within a few minutes. Staff no longer spend time on the phone tracking down parents.

“It is a fantastic service. It saves us from having to ring everybody – it is completely automated.” – Tony Sears, Deputy Principal, Waiheke High School

“I used to spend fifteen minutes to an hour texting parents to find out where students were. Now with one click of a button parents receive a customised text asking them to reply about their child’s whereabouts. It is a wonderful timesaver.” – Executive Officer, Newlands Primary School

2. Ease of use for parents.

Parents can quickly text a response to the alert. Text is ubiquitous, cost effective and less embarrassing then explaining over the phone that they forgot to notify the school!

3. Child safety is paramount.

The alerts take minutes from the receipt of the roll to reach the parents, meaning any child safety issues are apparent very quickly.

4. Creates a record.

Alerts and responses are automatically recorded in the SMS to inform discussion surrounding individual student attendance issues

“Concerns around absenteeism and sharing this information with parents was a major driver for a new solution.” – Dougal McGowan, the Deputy Rector of Otago Boys’ High School

5. No app required.

The system is not dependent on parents having downloaded an app.

“Our parents are mostly connected to texting on their cell phones – so texting is the most effective way to get a hold of them.” – Deputy Principal of Wanganui City College

Use our calculator to find out how much time and money you can save with an EN System.

Your school noticeboard could be critical in an emergency

January, 2021

Amy CarterThe next in our series of thought leadership pieces on communicating in and during an emergency. Amy Carter, now Chief Executive Officer of the Christchurch Foundation, and Managing Partner of Carter, Price, Rennie back when the Christchurch earthquakes occurred, shares her thoughts about communicating without power.

Old school and new school both have a role to play in emergency communications

When the Christchurch earthquakes struck, Amy Carter was Managing Partner of Carter, Price, Rennie, a formidable public relations/communications company with clients including the Crown, the Canterbury DHB and Fletcher Group. Amy was quite literally in the hot seat.

In the immediate aftermath, communication options were limited, “We lost our office and all our equipment, bar our servers and laptops. As our work was deemed of national significance, the Police accompanied us as we collected what we could. At home we had no power, no water.” In the most trying of circumstances, Amy attempted to maintain communication with her client’s target audiences.

A Two-Pronged Approach

For Amy and her team, their approach was two-pronged, “Our clients, the Crown, the DHB, Fletchers, and Waimakariri and Selwyn District Councils had to be able to ensure that critical information was reaching every sector of the community.” Back then phones were not as ubiquitous, particularly amongst the elderly, and power was an issue, “I don’t think people realise how a loss of power can impact your communications. We had cell towers that were out for weeks, or operating on generators that would regularly run out of fuel.”

As a result, old school communications became as important as digital, “We identified where people had gathered immediately after the earthquakes – local dairies, fire stations and particularly schools. We put up community notice boards in these locations, and we would update them as required, township after township. We would broadcast across radio and use other non-digital platforms to announce that there was an update.”

Amy acknowledges that today technology has moved on and that Telco’s and the Government have more robust text messaging systems in place, “Text is a key part of an emergency response but to get public information out you need a backup. Understanding who were the critical influencers in our communities, getting the message through to them and setting up phone trees was one of our most effective approaches. I think acknowledging how much we rely on power was the biggest learning for me.”

The lesson is to have a plan. How will you contact staff, students and wider audiences in the event of an emergency? Both digitally, and in the event of a potentially long term power outage?

With thanks to Amy Carter.

 

 

Preparedness Makes All The Difference

October, 2020

The first in a series of thought leader pieces on communicating during and after an emergency. What can the education sector learn from the business world?

Graham DockrillGraham Dockrill, serial entrepreneur, investor, company director and business consultant, says it all comes down to thinking about what information you will need, and how you are going to access it in an emergency situation.

The Immediate Aftermath

Back in 2011 when the devastating Christchurch earthquake took place, Graham was a co-director of Hairy Lemon, a design company with thirty employees. They were located on the third floor of a seven story building on Victoria Street, “In terms of communications, we were really lucky. We had our eyes opened when the smaller shake hit the city in the previous September. My senior management team made the decision there and then to print off all of our employees’ contact details and keep them in our wallets or purses. It seems so low tech now but without those numbers things would have been very problematic.”

When the 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Christchurch’s central business district, Graham’s office evacuated, never to return. He and his management team were able to manually text everyone as soon as telecommunications were restored and check that everyone was safe, “If we hadn’t carried those numbers out on our persons, it would have been a far more drawn out process.”

Graham reflects that today, preparedness is just as critical, “Nowadays it won’t be a piece of paper but whatever the system, the principles are the same. It needs to be accessible outside the office, up to date, and efficient. You have to have a plan.”

Mental Health, Well-being & Operations

Once Graham had ensured that all his staff were unharmed, the next phase of communications had two distinct components, “On the one hand we needed to check in on staff welfare and support them as they struggled with the damage to their homes and the impact on their families. On the other side, we needed to manage operations and ensure business continuity.”

Although only nine years ago, video conferencing was not an option, “I guess we did a low-tech version of the Zoom and Teams meetings that businesses are relying on through COVID-19. People would meet in small groups at one staff member’s house and we would conference call in to support them.”

For Graham, the important lesson learned during this stage was that businesses must remember the importance of data security and keeping track of communications, “Back then it wasn’t as much of a challenge as it is today. We didn’t have so many non ‘company-sanctioned’ communication platforms such as Facebook Messenger and What’s App. Even so people can start using a chat service to check in with each other, and then it is a slippery slope to sending company documents via that medium. You need to establish clear protocols.”

Take-Aways for Pulling through a Crisis

Having led a business successfully through the Christchurch Earthquake and having since advised numerous clients, Graham rates effective communication as critical, “An organisation needs to have simple and accessible systems in place to facilitate an immediate response to a crisis, and to provide longer term support, both on a personal, as well as an operational level.”

For advice on how to ensure your school is ready for any eventuality, contact our team.

Thinking about your communications?

September, 2020

Here are five questions for your senior leadership team to help you evaluate the effectiveness of your communication strategy in the event of an emergency.

  • How many parents/caregivers have downloaded your chosen communication platform? Of those, how many have enabled push notifications?
  • How many parents/caregivers follow your social media channels?
  • What is the typical response to information that you send via email?
  • What system do you have in place to assess who has received your alert in the event of an emergency?
  • How will you communicate if the emergency situation requires you to leave the school building or in the event of a power outage?

School-links brings you the latest in communication tools including a multi-channel emergency alerts system that includes text messaging and a record of successful deliveries, and an app enabling staff remote access to the system. If you are an edge or KAMAR school, your SMS data is now automatically synced and integrated into the School-links communication system.

Massey Primary School, recently involved in a lockdown during a police shooting, commented:

“It was absolutely amazing using the [Emergency Alerts] app and directly on-line.  School-links was used to send separate messages to just our staff, and to staff and parents/caregivers.  Emails and texts were used. It worked faultlessly and kept everyone well informed, a great outcome.”

Contact our team to discuss how you can improve your current communications strategy.

School-links develop cutting edge comms platform – available to community groups for koha donations

August, 2020

App, text and email tool ‘Beep4Business’ now available to the arts, sports, churches and not-for-profits

Andrew Balfour, CEO and founder of School-links, is offering his new multichannel communication platform ‘Beep4Business’ for koha donations to support the community sector as it battles with the ongoing impact of Covid19. Workers and volunteers have spent hours during the Covid19 situation communicating news and updates to their clients, members and congregations, often unsure as to whether the messages were getting through. Now the Beep4Business app, text and email messaging service is available for koha donations to support not-for-profits and community groups to ensure that they can maintain contact with their clientele going forward.

Living through the devastating Christchurch earthquake, Balfour had experienced first-hand how important no-fail methods of communication are in a crisis. School-links, his communication solution for schools, became a leading communication platform in the New Zealand education sector, and his team have become a recognised authority in the field of Emergency Response and Attendance Management.

Beep4Business, the sister platform to School-links, was due for release just prior to the Covid19 pandemic, “During the lockdown the mantra ‘stay safe, be kind’ really struck a chord with our organisation. We have always been about helping people stay safe, and we feel in these difficult times that we have an opportunity to support all those agencies who support all of us.” Andrew has subsequently launched Beep4Business with a ‘koha’ option for charities, not-for-profits, churches, social enterprises, clubs, and associations.

Andrew’s Beep4Business software allows organisations to easily push out 2-way messages to members, or targeted groups, via a free Beep app, or personalised emails or texts, “We just ask that the church or charity, or whoever, contact us and we will do whatever we can to help.”

Learn more

Communicating through the COVID-19 response

June, 2020

Schools and early childhood centres talk about how they utilised School-links Emergency Alerts during the COVID-19 lockdown

We spoke to a number of our schools and early childhood centres to see how they used School-links during the COVID-19 response, both to inform our own ongoing platform development, and to share good practice with other organisations.

The build-up: sharing information to quell the fear

As the pandemic ramped up across the globe, schools began to see the number of queries from parents and caregivers increase. Megan Chisholm, Office Manager at Newlands School in Wellington recalls, “Even a week or so away from lockdown, we could feel that the school community was starting to panic and we were getting a lot more questions. We had already received a couple of Ministry of Education guidelines, so we used the School-links email notification service to forward these onto parents to keep them in the loop.”

Julie Dawick, Deputy Principal at Cambridge Middle School, agrees and explains how they took full advantage of the multi-channel nature of School-links, “We texted parents to say check your emails for further information and this alerted some caregivers that we had the wrong email address which we could then put right before the situation escalated.”

Megan also appreciated School-links Early Notification (EN) system, “The Monday before lockdown many families didn’t send their kids to school. A lot didn’t contact us with everything that was going on, but I was able to use the EN system.” This systems sends texts and emails to the caregivers of students marked absent without explanation, “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to chase up a third of the school without that, especially as we were preparing for the Prime Minister’s announcement.”

Shifting from Level 3 to 4: pre-empting the situation

“That Monday felt almost scary,” reflects Megan, “We knew we were all going to be hearing the news at exactly the same time so we could potentially be inundated with queries. So, we pre-empted the situation and sent out a text to all caregivers to say that we would be in touch shortly.” This gave the management team time to make a plan, “Then we sent out a multi-channel message, on text and email, to announce that the school would be closing except for the children of essential workers. We advised them that we would forward official information via email as soon as it came available.” The parents of essential workers were also able to quickly and easily respond to let us know if their child would be attending.

Rachel from Woolston Pre-School in Christchurch was also able to swiftly contact her families, “Obviously COVID-19 was a situation we hadn’t been in before, and an emergency situation, so it all happened quite quickly.” It soon became apparent after the Prime Minister’s announcement that the Centre needed to send out a communication to families alerting them that they would be closed the following day, “I was a wee bit panicked about how I was going to keep them updated but we just used the text messaging in School-links. It was really good. I could keep everybody informed and I could send links through it to further information.”

Level 4 – lockdown: communicating for well-being

Newlands Primary School used the School-links email platform to stay in touch with their community, reassuring them that the students’ wellbeing and mental health was a priority. As soon as they had  a plan in place for online learning, they shared the information with caregivers and gave specific times to the families for when the teachers would be in contact. Megan stresses, “Having a reliable communication system that syncs with our management system edge was invaluable. It meant that all the new students who were starting our school in term two were seamlessly receiving all the communications too. It just made my life so much easier.”

For Cambridge Middle School too, School-links meant that everyone was connected. Julie explains, “We used School-links to share all communications that were relevant to parents, and always texted to alert them to check their emails. School-links meant that our comms were relevant, on time and to the point. It provided such reassurance for the community at what was a very difficult time.”

Moving out of lockdown: administration made simple

The main issue for schools as the country moved back into level three was finding out the numbers of students who would be attending. Megan again found the text alert system critical, “We used the text option again at this point, with a link to an online form that made it easy for parents. We had so many positive comments about our communication.”

Rachel had the same response from her early childhood parents, “I have had a lot of feedback from the families saying that it was great, that we kept them up to date and they knew what was happening.”

Reflection: it was all about reassurance – and time

For Megan there were two clear benefits of School-links Emergency Alerts. Firstly, the school had time to craft the content, rather than worry about how they were going to get communications out, and secondly it gave the community peace of mind, “They knew that they didn’t have to chase us. We hardly had any queries because we were able to keep right on top of it.”

Julie describes School-links as pivotal for the communication strategy at Cambridge Middle School, “It would have been absolutely onerous without it.  When we moved into level four, we knew we had everything in place and were just waiting to press go. And that feeling of reassurance spread to our community too.”

With thanks to Cambridge Middle School, Newlands Primary School and Woolston Pre-School.

Learn more about Emergency Alerts

edge school: ‘we’ve got this’ during police lockdown

June, 2020

School-links Emergency Alerts keep community informed

Cambridge Middle School went into lockdown in February, at approximately 2.45pm, just prior to the end of the school day. The lockdown stemmed from a call from the police to advise of a police operation near the school. They recommended that Cambridge Middle along with three other schools go into lockdown as a precautionary measure.

The school took immediate action upon receiving this advice and the school was locked down with all staff and students remaining inside the buildings until they were notified as to when they could come out of lockdown. The lockdown ended at approximately 3.30pm without incident.

The school utilised School-links to keep the community up to date on the situation. The automated daily data synchronisation between edge and School-links meant that all contact information was up to date. Parents, caregivers – and staff – were able to be informed via text message and email within minutes, and kept informed as to further developments. Approximately 1400 messages were sent on multiple communication channels in a couple of clicks. Critically, it meant that parents who had already come to collect their children remained in their vehicles and didn’t interfere with the work of the emergency services.

Cambridge Middle School received wholly positive feedback from relieved parents and caregivers, who did not have to search social media for the latest information but were able to rely on clear and accurate messaging from the school leadership team.

Julie Dawick, Deputy Principal at Cambridge Middle School says of School-links, “Just do it. You have to be prepared for situations that are outside of your control. It was so reassuring that we had School-links. We knew we’d got this and could concentrate on the situation at hand.”

Learn more about the features School-links adds to the edge platform

Learn more about Emergency Alerts

In a school lockdown, fast, easy-to-use and reliable communications are essential

October, 2019

 

Schools are where children go to learn. That’s their primary function, but the logistics involved with so many people in one location – most of them children – means that imparting knowledge is just one of the challenges faced by school management teams. Student safety is, of course, paramount. Whether it’s a fire in one of the buildings or a chemical leak in a lab, there are procedures in place to keep the kids safe.

When the safety of children is an issue while at school, the natural response of any parent or caregiver is to use whatever means necessary to find out if they’re OK. This is especially true of lockdowns, when access in and out of the school has been stopped. Not knowing what’s happening is very stressful, so if a lockdown occurs, schools need a fast, easy-to-use and reliable communications solution that lets everyone know what’s happening.

On March 15, 2019, Christchurch schools would face that very crisis as a mass shooting erupted at two of the city’s mosques. With the gunman on the loose – and indeed, doubt as to how many gunmen there might be – Christchurch schools went into immediate lockdown and activated their emergency communications procedures.

For those currently using the School-links solution, the Emergency Alert System went into action. It’s a tool for Senior Leadership Teams that can be used remotely when access to their current systems are not available. The system does three main things:

  • Notifies parents and caregivers by app or text message of what’s happening
  • Makes sure everyone gets those crucial messages
  • Keeps schools in control and focusing on student safety

The Emergency Alert System is reliable and easy to use. Its designated emergency channel allows schools to quickly communicate with parents and caregivers during a lockdown. Currently, over 500 New Zealand schools and Early Childhood Centres use the Emergency Alert system when they need to get a message through to parents urgently and reliably.

The Emergency Alert System meant that, during the March 15 crisis, parents and caregivers knew their children were safe and protected, that the school was in lockdown, and that when the all-clear was given, they would be notified immediately.

Following the all-clear after the shootings, Hagley Community College Director Jenni Holden commented on what it had meant for the College to have the School-links Emergency Alert System on board. “We’re incredibly grateful that we have access to the School-links Emergency app,” she said. “It was crucial in communicating with our school community yesterday quickly and efficiently, with several messages sent through the app. I know it’s an absolute tragedy and no-one wants to think about the possibilities of these emergency events happening but knowing that we have your support and great systems to back us up makes it a lot easier. Thanks everyone – you made a difference and helped allay a lot of parents’ fears yesterday.”

With the Emergency Alert System, a school isn’t relying on power or on-site computer access. It means that a mass message can be sent rather than trying to get in touch with everyone individually, and the school can tell at a glance if that message didn’t get through to anyone, so they can try and contact them another way.

As Jenni said, we don’t like to think about emergencies and disasters happening, but the fact is that they do. For the safety of students and staff, emergency procedures are critical, and that includes a reliable, innovative, and easy-to-use communications solution.

To find out more about how we can help your school to improve its emergency communications procedures, don’t hesitate to get in touch.