Communication IS Connection: Learning from the Pandemic Crisis

The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member, senior learning designer, and Catholic school liaison at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane

The fact that people are no longer permitted to gather physically in schools makes it abundantly clear that “schools,” are much more than buildings. Catholic schools are faith-based, faith-filled communities that are uniquely equipped to offer the spiritual, emotional, educational, and material support needed in difficult times.  Catholic school leaders realize this and are working to re-establish their school community at a distance using new tools and techniques. The current, disrupted educational environment is helping Catholic school leaders recognize the important role effective communication plays in connecting their community. Because no other means are available in a virtual space, communication IS connection! It both creates community and enables people to give and receive care.

At the moment, critical communication “gaps” are being illuminated because everyone is forced to connect at a distance using (almost exclusively) planned, asynchronous, technology-mediated means. Although these problems are always present, usually only some members of the community experience them. During typical times, informal connections, specifically real-time, personal, face-to-face relationships, supplement formal communication for a majority of families. Often, those who are “on the fringe” (e.g., those who are not socially connected, are not fluent in English, or have limited access to technology, etc.) are “out of the loop” and excluded from full engagement in the community. In Catholic schools, where the involvement of every community member is considered an essential part of the mission, school communication plans must be “ordered” to promote this connection for everyone, and especially those who are most marginalized. 

The following suggestions, inspired by what has been learned during the pandemic, will lead to a more effective and inclusive school communication plan for the 2020-21 school year.

Refine procedures regarding family contact information: When schools began distance learning weeks ago, many experienced unanticipated problems maintaining contact with families. The phone numbers, email addresses, and other data on file were often found to be incorrect. This made it apparent that an annual collection process for this data is no longer sufficient. More regular and careful attention is needed. Catholic schools will be served by employing practices used in the healthcare industry, where key personal interactions (e.g., phone calls, office visits, etc.) become routine times to confirm and update contact information. Every school communication plan should articulate a procedure for a) when, in what ways, and how often contact information will be updated and checked, as well as b) a plan for ensuring that families who are at special risk of losing contact (and may also need extra care) will remain connected. 

Develop practices for archiving school communications: In the early days of the pandemic, everyone felt overwhelmed. The volume of messages sent to families at different times, from various school staff, and using a variety of communication channels contributed to this. Rather than reducing stress and making remote learning procedures easier to implement, confusion and anxiety were increased by uncoordinated communication. Schools that were already implementing the practice of archiving all communication outputs in one location (regardless of who sent them and when) realized a great benefit in keeping a single, shared electronic repository. Using a password-protected web space made accessible to all community members, school newsletters, weekly updates, official emails, and other vital information can be made available from a hyperlinked index and organized by date. This practice makes it easier for everyone in the school community to keep up-to-date with important information and ensures that all can remain connected and engaged with the community. Special energy should be invested in arranging for all families to gain full access to this archive. This might mean offering special one-on-one technology tutorials or language translations.

Make plans for greater coordination, transparency, and access: Since remote learning began, school leaders have gained a greater appreciation for the unique and special circumstances of the families they serve. This information should be built into the formal communication plan every school needs to have. Such plans will enable greater coordination, transparency, and access. At a minimum, a plan should include: a) an inventory of the school and classroom communication channels currently in use (e.g., quarterly bulletins, school newsletters, classroom updates, website, social media, etc.), b) information about each channel’s purpose(s) and scope of use, c) details about the timing, frequency, and protocols that govern their production and distribution, d) an explanation of how the use of different channels will be coordinated, e) a plan that supports universal access to all families, and f) a procedure for communicating this information to the community.

Catholic schools that wish to create a community that reflects the love Christ has for all will benefit from considering the influence communication has on achieving this goal. Catholic school leaders should be sure to study the communications-related issues that emerge during the COVID-19 crisis and develop practices, policies, and plans designed to include their members who experience the most barriers to communication. If they do, they will find these plans assist all community members and contribute to creating a more vibrant, beautiful school community.