Return-to-School Crisis Communications: COVID-19 Provides a Different Kind of Lesson

Robert W. Sprague

Here are five principles to help keep school systems from flunking communications at the beginning of school year 2020-21.

“Unprecedented” is both the most-overused word of 2020 and a fair description of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. School systems are indeed facing unprecedented challenges as school year 2020-21 begins.

But the reopening of school is in many ways a typical communications crisis. The principles of crisis communications can and should be applied to mitigate reputational damage, lower the fever pitch of emotions, and allow administrators to get on with the job of providing the best education possible when the country is still gripped with a global pandemic.

Unfortunately, some school systems have fallen victim to the charged political climate and the strikingly different agendas of parents, teachers, elected officials, and reporters. They have gone silent, adopted defensive postures, or focused on minutiae. They have continued to communicate with the same volume, through the same media, using the same messages as if the crisis was not happening. For a subject as emotionally charged as the education of America’s children, this does not work well.

Mike Smith elucidated many of the principles just after the COVID-19 pandemic first hit. Here’s how school systems can apply them now, and throughout an unprecedented school year.

1. Have a strategy.

Even a skeleton outline is better than no strategy at all. A small, agile, insightful team should work through the key communications questions: Who are we talking to, in order of importance?  What do they really need to know and believe? What channels and vehicles are best to reach them?  Who should represent our organization? What are the hard questions for which we need answers? How will we track and measure our effectiveness? 

A good comms team will apply some controlled pessimism and worst-case scenario planning, trying to anticipate what could go wrong. Right now school systems need to be thinking through the prospect of distance learning technology that fails, COVID-19 hot spots that appear, mental health crises that flare, and other events that may accompany the resumption of school.

2. Communicate early and often.

The school system needs to get in front of the issues, not be forced into response or defense mode. This may not necessarily mean more communication, since school systems have been known to deluge parents and other audiences with information. In fact, it can be wise to limit transactional communication for a time  to make crisis-related communication more prominent.

Long, wordy emails are seldom effective for any purpose. They can leave non-native speakers and those without desktop computers out in the cold. Consider infographics, short “explainer” videos, crafted social media posts, microsites, and other less-usual vehicles to attract attention.

3. Remember what’s really important to your audience.

The crisis is not about whether or not schools should open; it’s about fear. Many stakeholders are fearful for their own or their children’s lives. Others are fearful that their children will fall behind. Still others are fearful of the effect of partial or full virtual learning upon their jobs. 

Bus schedules and when sports are going to start are important, but it is crucial to connect to the strong emotions surrounding the reopening of school. What is really important? The health and safety of students, teachers, and other staff; only if that can be assured do other considerations deserve to enter.

4. Acknowledge mistakes, then move on.

Problems are bound to accompany the reopening of school.  No school system has had time to pivot fully to virtual learning or accommodate social distancing for in-person settings. Stakeholders will probably not expect perfection, but they will expect good judgment and accountability from school administrators and officials.

When mistakes occur—from schedule mix-ups to wholesale technology meltdowns—transparency, honesty, and plans for resolution will go a long way to limiting the damage. 

5. Respond to the real needs.

Most stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and politicians, are aware of at least some of the issues surrounding the reopening of school. They are willing to grant school systems some slack. But each stakeholder group has unique needs, and a school system will gain credibility and good will by providing resources and understanding.

Parents, notably, may face the challenge of indefinite partial or total home schooling for their children.  Few parents are ready now, and they will be highly appreciative of useful and practical help from their child’s school.

Stakeholders should not expect schools to have all the answers; but they can expect school systems to be working hard to fill gaps. Unless this is communicated, they will assume that nothing is being done.


From crisis communications strategy to ongoing development of messages and deliverables, school systems may need additional help during the COVID-19 crisis. A strong outside communications partner, with relevant experience, additional bandwidth, and a semi-objective perspective, can help navigate the many communications pitfalls school systems now face.

Yes& is such a partner.  Please contact us if your school system could benefit from our background and capabilities as you negotiate the return to school for school year 2020-21.

Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

Let’s talk about what the power of "&" can do for you.

Robert W. Sprague
Robert W. Sprague
President & CEO