4 steps to effective crisis management in education as schools prepare to reopen

How educational institutions can manage risk when students return to campus

Schools are soon to reopen across the UK, following months of home learning, meaning hundreds of thousands of children and young people across England will reunite with their teachers and friends as institutions open their gates once more.

With this comes the responsibility of keeping everyone on-site safe and secure. Whether it’s a natural disaster like a hurricane or a man-made crisis like a power outage, local and state governments must be prepared to protect communities from any threat.

Though the pandemic’s effects are subsiding, it’s important that today’s education institutions are prepared for the possibility of cluster outbreaks. Any significant COVID outbreaks must be dealt with as quickly as possible – as should evidence of new illnesses or emergencies that could plunge schools back into turmoil again. It’s essential to have the right solutions in place that can help you effectively respond to incidents, send alerts and account for your people before, during and after an event. An effective crisis management system is key to achieving this.

What does an effective crisis management system look like?

In a rapidly changing environment, schools and universities need to be able to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to any sudden disruptions that may come their way. An effective crisis management system relies on two key factors: personnel accountability and effective communications.

Personnel accountability involves the ability to determine immediately if students and faculty are safe and accounted for. Are they on-site or off? On-duty or off? Away on vacation? What about any contractors or visitors who may be on the premises during an emergency – are their locations and safety accounted for?

This needs to work hand-in-hand with effective communication. When a crisis hits, there’s no time to waste. Communications need to be streamlined, intuitive and rapid. It should also provide two-way capabilities for both outreach and response, so crisis managers can quickly receive status reports from the scene and assign tasks to resolve the situation.

Yet the reality remains that despite the growing array of threats facing society today, many communities are simply not prepared. This can expose residents and businesses to unacceptable risks to life and property.

Schools need to make caring for their most valuable assets – staff and students – and maintaining operations a priority. Faculty leaders now need to test their resilience and challenge their continuity plans by revisiting their communication strategy and process to enable the next phase in our ‘new normal’.

There are four essential considerations that can help education institutions complete a successful transition back to school through an effective communication strategy:

  1. Visibility into your staff and students’ whereabouts

Account for all your personnel and students to facilitate an effective crisis response and restore order as quickly as possible — both critical to avoiding loss of life. Your crisis communications tool should allow emergency managers to request the status of individuals, select groups, or an entire populace and view the information via an at-a-glance dashboard to better understand the situation.

But simply communicating is not enough in a crisis; ensuring all key stakeholders have received your message in a clear and timely manner is crucial in a crisis situation. Your communication process should also tell you where your people are and filter out information only relevant to them and their role. A platform that enables communication, connectivity and collaboration, backed up by the highest level of security standards to sustain business, will enable your success.

  1. Picking the most effective communication channels

It’s well-known that people consume and digest information in many ways. In a school or university environment, you have a massive cross section of generations that use their devices in very differing ways, so ensuring your crisis communication strategy utilises a range of channels is crucial. Assuming only one method or medium is enough will be detrimental to your success. When establishing yourself as the central source of truth during a crisis, you must leverage all the tools and channels available to you to ensure the dissemination of information is reliable.

If you urgently need to contact faculty members, we often assume that email is sufficient as one of the most common forms of communication. But teachers are often away from their computers busy teaching, and in a crisis situation you can’t always be sure that everyone has access to an internet connection or their corporate email, or indeed, that there hasn’t been a power or network outage. Consider other channels in your strategy like Apps, SMS/text messaging, radio, digital signage and social media.

“When establishing yourself as the central source of truth during a crisis, you must leverage all the tools and channels available to you to ensure the dissemination of information is reliable”

  1. Up-to-date information is critical

Being able to reach your stakeholders and provide them with accurate information in a time of need is the first step in your crisis communication strategy. But you must also be sure you can account for them, coordinate a response if necessary and confirm they are safe.

An effective plan should include two-way communication channels. Having the ability to see where people are, and if they are safe, allows you to make decisions and take action.

As part of your return to school plan, consider introducing student surveys or health checks, or sending out daily safety reminders to capture sentiment and get staff what they need to help with the transition or manage a critical illness outbreak.

  1. Stronger together

Emergencies don’t occur in silos and having a network of trusted community organisations like local fire, ambulance and health authorities will prove critical as we navigate the different regional health guidelines and plan for returning to work.

To keep on top of these relationships you must leverage the same best practices you have for your internal communications and ensure you can communicate, connect and collaborate with these external stakeholders. This trusted network will be a source of factual data that can influence your ability to respond to a situation, like an illness outbreak, or other threat that puts your people or other assets at risk.

The safety of your staff, students and community is more important than ever in today’s world. A simple four-step strategy towards a more effective crisis management can make a world of difference in ensuring the wellbeing of your students, staff and community. The onus lies on education institutions and local government authorities to work hand-in-hand in ensuring that safety is always the top priority.

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