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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.

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.

Transforming school-to-home communication

August, 2020

Hamilton Girls’ High School share how they raised their game using data-synchronisation between KAMAR and School-links

Long-time users of School-links Early Notification system, Hamilton Girls’ High School (HGHS) recently shifted to using School-links messaging functionality. Taking advantage of the seamless daily data synchronisation between KAMAR and School-links, HGHS now use School-links for all mass communication to parents and students. Craig Scrimgeour, Deputy Principal, shares his experiences.

Read More >

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

Easy communication between school and home that doesn’t involve social media

November, 2018

School home communication

Communication between school and home should be effortless. At secondary level, many students are glued to their smartphone, relying on instant messaging, social media and text to communicate, with email increasingly seen as “old school”.

Schools are trying to engage with these new mediums, using Facebook or Twitter or other communication Apps to get the message out. However, these tools raise issues such as increasing administrative burdens for group leaders and teachers as they act as moderator, tackle inappropriate online behaviour and wrestle with ever changing privacy settings.

Parents and students can also be overwhelmed with the array of social media that they need to engage with – a Facebook page for rugby, a Twitter feed for events and cancellations, a Google page for class news and an email for school newsletters. Multiply the number of children, potentially attending different schools, and your parents will be looking back fondly on the days when their fridge was covered in bits of paper (or maybe the schools are still sending paper home too!).

School-links is now proud to release the new Beep App that aims to provide a universal platform for school to parent/caregiver and school to student communication.

Beep app

Beep is an App that can be easily used by all school managers, teachers and activity leaders to share notices and newsletters, group message sports teams, clubs, departments and classes and receive parent absence notes. For staff it provides one uncomplicated safe communication hub. For parents and students, all school and extra-curricular notices are in one place.

Beep is also inclusive, combining flawlessly with our School-links software, ensuring texts are sent to those without a smartphone, especially in an emergency situation.

Learn more

Contact us today to get started

 

Is your school emergency messaging strategy prehistoric?

February, 2018

Is your school emergency messaging strategy prehistoric?

The Jurassic Park movie would have ended a lot differently if the park coordinators had come up with a more robust emergency plan in the event of the power going out.

Although school emergency communication strategies don’t really need to plan for ‘in the event of cloned dinosaurs escaping’, we recommend for New Zealand schools to have reliable communication methods in place for the following situations:

  • Epidemic outbreaks
  • Floods
  • Cyclones
  • Fires
  • Earthquakes
  • Snow storms
  • Lock downs
  • Power outages

A student management system alone is not sufficient for emergencies

During an emergency or other disruptive event, schools are not only responsible for the safety of students, but also for communicating with parents to inform them of the situation and give them peace of mind.

For a few of these situations, (like epidemic outbreaks), it is probable that you would still have easy access to the school building and therefore, the computers. In this case, a messaging system from your SMS would suffice.

However, what if there was a power cut or the WiFi went out? What if there was a fire, earthquake or lockdown and you couldn’t access the school office? Would you still be able to get a message out to all parents quickly and easily using your SMS?

Real emergencies need purpose-built emergency messaging

New Zealand schools are generally confident with their method of communication…until an actual emergency occurs, and they realise there’s serious areas that need improvement.

This is precisely what happened to Wiremu Elliot, Principal of Lytton High School in Gisborne.

“We’ve got this list of every student and their family phone numbers in KAMAR, but that would be a nightmare to call or text everyone individually,” says Wiremu. “We had all these emergency processes but had never actually had to do a real one, it’s always been drills. So when it actually happened, that really highlighted the need to find a better way of getting that more personal contact.”

There was also the concern of trying to communicate to parents without power or access to school computers.

“It’s easy to post a message on Facebook but in an emergency what if we don’t have access to a computer? What if we have to evacuate?” questions Wiremu, “We were looking for smarter ways to do this.”

You can read more about Lytton High School’s emergency communication transformation in their case study.

Wiremu raised some good points.

It is important for your school have an easy strategy to inform parents about a closure or emergency that doesn’t rely on power or onsite computer access. It is much simpler to send out a mass message rather than contact each family individually. You also need visibility of any parents who did not receive your message and try to contact them another way. All these necessities can be accomplished through the right technology and processes being put in place.

How do you know if your communication channels are a bit ‘prehistoric’? Ask yourself the following.

Five questions to ask about your school communication strategy

  1. Do we have access to up-to-date family contact details?
  2. Can we access this information off-site?
  3. Do we have the ability to send emergency messages without access to power or school WiFi?
  4. Does our methodology allow us to send out a message to all parents instantly?
  5. Can we confirm that parents received the message?

If you answer no to any of the above questions, it may be time to evaluate your emergency communication plan.

The School-links Emergency Alert App is a reliable, easy to use and fast way to communicate parents during an emergency from your smart phone. Over 500 New Zealand schools and Early Childhood Centres are able to use School-links Emergency Alert system when they need to get a message through to parents urgently and reliably.

Watch the video below or visit the Emergency Alerts page for more information.

How an attendance management system can help reduce truancy rates

February, 2018

Following on from our last article on how parent engagement can help with reducing truancy rates at your school, having a Ministry of Education approved attendance management or early notification system can aid in this as well.

Early Notification (EN) is the use of text and/or email messages to notify parents that their child is inexplicably absent from school.

Parents have the opportunity to reply and notify the school of the reason for the absence (e.g. sickness) or that they aren’t aware of the absence, which could highlight a safety or truancy issue.

Wanganui City College is one school that has opted to use EN over traditional attendance management methods. Deputy Principal Doug Ewing says,

“The number one benefit to using School-links EN is the immediacy and the convenience of contacting parents for attendance matters. Rather than calling parents when a child is absent, secretarial staff send a text to parents about the situation. Email is a bit beyond where our parents are at as they’re mostly connected to texting on their cell phones – so texting is the most effective way to get a hold of them.”

Here are nine ways EN makes life easier for the school community:

Benefits of Early Notification for parents and caregivers

  • Fast notification of absences (which could potentially be a child safety issue).
  • Parents and caregivers can respond quickly and cost effectively.
  • It’s less embarrassing for parents or caregivers to respond to a text than a phone call if they have forgotten to notify the school of their child’s absence or/if the reason is personal.
  • Texting is more convenient for those who are unavailable to respond to personal calls during work or study hours.
  • Feedback from School-links’ customers, says that texts are the preferred method of school communication for most parents and caregivers.

Benefits of Early Notification for schools

  • Less time spent by the Attendance Officer in contacting caregivers of absent students.
  • Less expensive than calling mobile phones.
  • Responses go directly into the Student Management System and are easily viewed by the Attendance Officer, making them efficient to process (service offered by some EN providers).
  • Responses are saved in the Student Notes (service offered by some Student Management Systems).

To learn more about EN, download our white paper – The Role of Early Notification in Effective Attendance Management.

Having a Ministry of Education approved EN system can also potentially save your school money. Work out your potential savings with our handy calculator.