Our K-12 schools face an incredibly chaotic and rapidly evolving environment as they deal with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each day, school leaders confront a series of significant and far-reaching decisions with hundreds (if not thousands) of stakeholders waiting anxiously for the information.
Involving stakeholders in critical decisions can understandably take a back seat during challenging times. However, one can argue that now is the time for engaging community members, maybe more than ever. Stakeholders are worried, confused and in search of answers. Polling data from the American Psychiatric Association points to high levels of stress and anxiety. School districts that go the extra mile to foster two-way conversations with constituents will build trust, increase transparency and inspire confidence among their stakeholders.
Social distancing has made broad community engagement difficult – but not impossible. Online surveys and quick polls from providers like Survey Monkey and Google Forms are more available today than ever before, but engagement tools reach well beyond polls and surveys. Advanced planning and preparation is required, but they can help fill gaps in your communications and outreach plan during the pandemic – or any time.
Here are some suggestions to check out:
- Video conferencing and social streaming – Good community engagement plans are based on meeting people where they are, not what is most convenient. Today more than ever, your communities are connecting with one another virtually via Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Facebook Live and Instagram Live. These services offer district leaders opportunities to engage with residents through live presentations, Q&A sessions or even small group focus conversations. Some video conferencing platforms even allow a presenter to assign users to separate virtual “breakout rooms” for more interactive small group conversations.
- Ideaflip – This online, interactive sticky-note wall for small-group brainstorming. It could easily be used with governing boards, administrative teams, committees, or community groups to conduct an online brainstorming, strategic planning or visioning sessions.
- All Our Ideas – This free online tool developed by Princeton University can be used to “crowdsource” and prioritize ideas. All Our Ideas could also be used at the beginning of a project to conduct a large scale, community-wide brainstorm.
We have naturally turned online to communicate with one another during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of the online platforms assume users have reliable devices and stable, highspeed internet connections. Marginalized populations may have difficulty accessing these technologies, raising important questions about equity. Potential barriers to access require a commitment to an inclusive and broad-based engagement plan. District leaders should therefore think critically about whose voices may be missing from important community conversations and how to involve those facing significant impediments. A more inclusive engagement plan may require a complement of strategies, including:
- Organizing one-on-one telephone conversations with influential community leaders.
- Ensuring your communications are multilingual.
- Holding safe, socially distant conversations with small groups.
- Reaching out to organizations that already have deep ties within marginalized communities.
- Utilizing district-wide mailings for critical one-way communications that are less time sensitive.
A compliment of engagement strategies will be necessary to maximize participation in your community conversations.
We’re in the midst of an incredibly challenging time. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped foster a shared sense of commitment to one another and increase residents’ awareness of how school districts serve their communities. Community members want to help their school and one another. Districts that provide residents with an outlet will reap benefits through valuable input, new ideas and a more engaged public.