Initial Preparation

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Informing the Community

Letting the community know you are preparing for an emergency is a careful process. The seriousness of the situation must be conveyed without generating panic, and the school's first message to families needs to be one that is genuine, ideally matching the style of communication that people are used to.

There are some obvious components, such as assuring everyone that the safety and academic success of all students is the top priority. Give people sources of solid information, such as the CDC page on COVID-19. For families trying to give students easily-understood information about the virus, a web comic explaining the coronavirus like this one created by NPR might help assuage their fears.

Be clear that the emergency may represent a new challenge, and that your teams are working hard (assuming they are) to develop the resources and choice of tools teachers will use for online learning as needed.

Should the school close, you might also plan for regular messages to send to your community, focusing on news from the school, suggested online activities, and even some simple games that students and family members might enjoy together with ideas for tying the games to elements of students' learning.

Give the community the opportunity to send questions, and answer those in a blog or similar space that different members of the leadership team can contribute to.

Access and Capabilities of Staff

As soon as possible, figure out what your staff knows and can do from home.

In terms of access, you might get better information by asking if teachers can watch an online video without stops rather than asking if they have strong internet connections, which could mean different things to different people.

There may be members of your team who rely completely on cell service for internet access at home. If so, relatively low-bandwidth apps such as WhatsApp might be helpful for general communication.

Clearly, teachers will need to be up to speed on those tools everyone will use. Consistency across classes will make things simpler for students, and you may have people who have just scratched the surface with the possibilities of a video conferencing or forum tool who need the opportunity to practice together before a closure.

In later pages of this guide, we will look at specific tools for specific learning purposes.

Access and Capabilities of Students

Survey your families to learn what access they have at home. Some portion of your students will not have internet access that allows use of video resources, video conferencing for group work, etc.

For them, you will need to know if there are other ways they can access content, such as via cell phones.

Also keep in mind that if students can't come to school, a parent or parents may not be able to go to work, meaning that they are using home bandwidth to continue their own jobs. In your survey, find out if multiple people can watch streaming videos at the same time to get an idea of how strong their home networks are.

Flexibility will be an all-important piece of making a sudden transition to online learning as successful as possible, and teachers will likely need to think in terms of doing what they can however they can with their classes.

Know also that there may be students who are doing very well academically, have strong tech skills, and plenty of bandwidth at home. These students may prove helpful in creating content to help others, a topic we will return to when discussing creating videos.

It may also be important to have physical packets of material for students to read and work with if online tools are not available to given students and their families.

Tapping into the Team's Expertise

As with the students who can create material as part of the class, there will be non-teaching members of the team who can create useful content for the community.

Food service people might create content about eating healthy meals during the emergency. Counselors might create content with encouraging messages for both students and their parents. Your instructional tech team may need to connect with colleagues in other schools or districts to share resources in order not to be overwhelmed by the demands of teachers trying to get up to speed on certain tools.

As a leader, be careful not to micromanage those who know specific populations (very young or special education students, for example) directly. Get their ideas on what will work best for those least able to be more self-directed about their work, and facilitate your teams' contacts with colleagues at other schools and districts who might have answers that elude you and your people.

Go to Ways to Think about Emergencies.

The writer, Rushton Hurley, is the founder of Next Vista for Learning, the author of three books (Making Your Teaching Something Special, Making Your School Something Special, and Technology, Teamwork, & Excellence) as well as the writer of the blog Inspiring Improvement.