Innovative Ways States Communicate in a Time of Crisis

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“We must treat this like what it is and that is a crisis that we have not seen most of us in our lifetimes.” – Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine

In times of crisis and societal change, effective – and often, creative – communication from state leaders is paramount for stability and safety of local communities. When DeWine announced on March 12 that the state’s schools would be shut down for an initial period of three weeks, he was the first in the country to take such sweeping action to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Since then, DeWine, along with many governors across the nation, have held daily briefings to update their communities on education implications, as well as broader public health considerations, related to the outbreak. State education leaders across the country have had to rethink ways to effectively communicate with students, parents and families when they need guidance most.

Daily Email and Online Updates

In addition to governor’s offices, state boards and departments of education regularly field inquiries from students, parents and educators. In order to respond to the dramatic influx of questions related to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Illinois State Board of Education established a dedicated email address to receive comments and questions and created FAQ sheets and guidance documents on prevalent issues, in collaboration with educators and other agencies. ISBE places all updates and resources on a dedicated COVID-19 webpage. ISBE followed major guidance releases with interactive town halls and webinars to give superintendents and affected stakeholders the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers in real time.

Illinois State Superintendent of Education Carmen I. Ayala also publishes “Messages from the Superintendent” via email — daily in the first several weeks of the crisis and then two or three times per week as needed. In addition to sharing new guidance and opportunities for professional learning, Ayala also uses this platform to highlight success stories happening at the school and district level — like this one:

“Today, we saw a Facebook post from a mom who has a son in 9th grade at Vernon Hills High School. He’s struggling with algebra, so his teacher, Jennifer Tye, instructed the mom to have her son to go stand in the driveway. Within 10 minutes, Ms. Tye appeared at the end of the driveway (safely more than six feet away) with a white board and markers, to give the freshman a distance algebra lesson.”

ISBE sources positive stories from social media, news articles and direct email submissions. Sharing the stories elevates effective practices and shows appreciation for educators’ hard work and creativity in unprecedented circumstances.

Social Media

A number of state education leaders have turned to social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to share updates and guidance as quickly as possible with their communities. In California, the department of education created a number of task forces, including the Digital Divide Task Force, to dive into various issues affecting students and families during this crisis. The department has used Facebook Live to stream these committee meetings to a wider audience and receive additional feedback from participants through comments. And through a series of virtual support circles for parents, educators and students, the department has connected stakeholders on issues around mental health, implicit bias and emotional support during distance learning.

“Social media has allowed us to connect people in a great time of need during a deeply isolating time,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond told us. “By leveraging these tools, we not only have been able to reach tens of thousands of Californians with the resources they need, but also move the needle on critical issues facing our students like the digital divide.”

Texts

States have also taken to utilizing existing infrastructure to spread the word. Since 2014, the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission has managed a program called Txt 4 Success which offers students college counseling via text message. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, WVHEPC has used this program to also share with students important information regarding deadlines and changes to programs resulting from the pandemic. The program currently serves over 27,000 high school seniors and college freshman.

Communicating and sharing information with students, parents and families is not new to state education leaders. However, with the increased use of technology and need for information in the current environment, states have gotten creative in how to share updates with their constituents — through daily communication, increased social media presence and text messaging, among others. These tools allow leaders to provide not only updated guidance and information, but also successes from schools and districts that are serving students in new ways. As policymakers look forward to rebuilding and restarting their state education systems, communication continues to be more important than ever.

Author profile
State Relations Strategist at Education Commission of the States | dscott@ecs.org

As a state relations strategist, Deven works to build relationships with all policymakers and seeks opportunities to support their education priorities. She is the liaison for Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming. She comes to Education Commission of the States with experience from both the state and national policy arenas, having held positions in a governor’s office and the U.S. Senate. Deven earned both a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of South Dakota — Go 'Yotes!

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