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Enhancing Community Engagement in the COVID-19 Era

By now, it’s pretty clear: COVID-19 has schools operating in a new normal. 

For most students and parents, that means staying at home through the end of this school year and participating in some form of distance learning.

School buildings are closed. Yet, parents, students, and staff face more challenges, and have more questions than ever. How you listen to your school community, and respond to their needs, will help you establish trust, limit distractions, and focus on delivering essential services and instruction in a post COVID-19 world. 

At K12 Insight, we often talk about the importance of providing great customer experiences in our schools. These days, your attention on this front is absolutely critical.

The core of our approach is empowering school leaders to provide streamlined two-way communication that keeps students, parents, staff, and community members reassured. 

Since March, our team has partnered with dozens of school districts to stand up free COVID-19 Response Centers. Powered by our Let’s Talk! K-12 customer experience solution, these centers help to unify school communications (across channels and mailboxes), so school leaders can focus on the complex challenges their schools continue to face during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

If you’re interested in standing up your own COVID-19 Response Center, go here. 

Or check out our recent blog post on how school leaders are using their Response Centers to keep community members engaged and reassured. 

Of course, it’s important to understand that technology by itself won’t bring your school community back together.

You have to listen—and listening takes serious skills. Fortunately, these are skills you and your team can learn. 

Every Tuesday at 2 pm EST | 11 am PST, I host a virtual training for K-12 school leaders, demonstrating practical skills for listening. Called Leading by Reassuring, our weekly training series shares practical ideas and tips and tricks to make listening a part of your culture, and shows you how to do it in an online and distance-learning environment.

In one of our most recent sessions, I outlined five key skills for improved listening and asked participating school leaders to rank how good they were at each. 

As you work your way through this list, ask yourself: “Am I using each of these skills to effectively communicate during this crisis?” If not, now is the time to rethink how you communicate with students, parents, and staff. Get this right and you’ll be on the fast track to building trust with your community in this new normal.

1. Always recall the details

You know you’re great at recalling details if you remember names, dates, and other very specific information. In a crisis of this magnitude, understanding key details of health, including important health data and certain individual challenges or circumstances facing students and parents, helps build empathy and gets your conversation off on the right foot. 

2. Understand the big picture

You grasp the overall meaning of something and can see the forest for the trees. There will always be daily fire drills during a crisis, and you need to be able to deal with those. But you also need the ability, as a leader, to step back from the chaos and visualize the big picture. Then use the best information you have to make informed decisions. You must be equipped to communicate those decisions back out to your community and prepared to explain yourself and your choices where needed. 

3. Evaluate the content

This skill shifts the focus away from awareness and understanding of a problem to carefully assessing how you communicate that problem, and your plan to solve it, with your school community. Do you have the ability to interpret meaning from the information and messages you are receiving? What’s your process for identifying valid and urgent concerns vs. information and chatter that just adds to the noise? 

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4. Attend to subtle cues

Ask yourself: Are you able to read between the lines. Whether in daily video or phone conversations, or in the email messages you receive, do you have the ability to interpret subtext and tone? What do the messages you’re receiving from parents, students, and other community members tell you about the mood on the ground? You won’t hear everything. Sometimes you have to interpret from what’s not being said, a vital skill to understand what’s really going on.

5. Empathize with other people

We’re all in this together. It’s a common mantra during the COVID-19 crisis. But it’s an important one. As a school leader, it is critical to not only listen, but also understand what people in your community are facing as a result of this crisis. Hard data is an important piece of decision-making, but it can’t be used in a vacuum. This is where empathy comes in. You have to consider information and decisions in the context of real life, and how people are feeling. Master this, and trust will become second nature for you and your school community.

For more on how to effectively listen to and engage your school community during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, be sure to watch the on-demand version of our training. And remember, we’re posting new episodes every Tuesday in the month of April. 

To sign up for our next live session or view previous recordings, go here. Stay safe and stay healthy. Hope to see you on one of our calls real soon.