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Optimizing Your School's Emergency Notification System
2020-06-23
girl student holding chalkboard that says

More Than It Seems

Emergency notification systems have become indispensable tools for school communication. When used effectively, they do more than simply keep families informed and alert about emergencies—they help foster a sense of community and set the stage for increased engagement.

That is, with proper setup, usage, and maintenance, the system can be an asset. Without it, your system can become a constant thorn in your side. So, it’s important to invest some time into considering issues around your system and how to get it working more smoothly for your school district.

The Big Picture

Generally, a mass notification system pulls contact data from your student information system into a platform that gives you options to communicate with families via phone, text, email, social media, or your school website or app. This is accomplished by a regularly-scheduled (usually nightly) automated data export/import process. As a result, your emergency notification system should have the most up-to-date contact information at all times (at least, as up-to-date as families have provided).

So, what can go wrong? From my actual experience, quite a bit can go wrong. You might have seen one of the following instances:

  • Families not receiving messages
  • People who don’t have a child at your school receiving messages
  • Massive influx of calls after you send a call
  • Messages playing in the wrong language
  • Messages going to the wrong student

We won’t be solving all of those issues in this post, but we will help you better implement a system that will lead to fewer of these issues.

One note—many systems now accommodate classroom-to-home communication. This has many wonderful benefits and should be considered as a possible practice for your school engagement plans. However, in this post we’re going to focus on the best practices for usage by school and district leadership.

Young mother receiving emergency notice on her smart phone

Message Types

In a general sense, there are three types of messages from these systems: Automated, Engagement, and Emergency.

Automated Messages include things like:

  • Attendance calls
  • Low lunch balance alert texts
  • Overdue library book emails reminders

You set these messages once, and the system sends messaging on a regular basis without any action on your part. When a student meets certain criteria, such as being absent from school or having a low lunch balance, that student’s information will be picked up in an automated report, and the contact will receive the automated message.

Engagement Messages include things like:

  • Reminders about an upcoming performance or game
  • Weekly principal’s message about the school calendar
  • Information about when to send back that fundraiser

These are messages created by the district or school administration, possibly in collaboration with staff members or partners such as the PTA. They can usually be pre-set to send at an optimal time, and they are intended to keep families informed about what’s happening in the school community.

Emergency Messages include things like:

  • School closure calls
  • Security update texts
  • Imminent issues such as late buses

These messages are always created by district or school leadership and sent immediately. Because of their emergency nature, they are often sent to a wider range of the contacts on file for each student.

Go with the flow

Know How to Go With the Flow

The most important first step in actually using an emergency system is understanding how it is setup. Most people focus on learning the interface that allows you to send the messages. Beyond that, you also need to understand how the data flows so you can avoid issues and align your messaging tactics. Connect with your registration and IT teams to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what data fields in your student information system track to which places in your notification system.

Make sure there is a process for getting student contact data into the student information system—and for making changes to it. It’s great that a student’s mom has updated her number on the clinic card, but unless we get that information into the student information system, it won’t be in the notification system—which means she won’t be called in a schoolwide emergency situation.

Tracking this data flow is important to communication strategy as well. Did your setup bring Emergency Contacts into the system? If so, be leery about calling ALL, even in an emergency. Grandma two states over doesn’t need a call at 5:30 a.m. to say school is closed.

Get Permissions Straight

Between your district-level team and school-based leadership at each location, there could be quite a few people who need access to the system. Or it could be just a handful. To the extent that you can keep the circle small, you can also better train and prepare the people who will pick up the phone or type out the emails. Proper setup can help prevent their potential mistakes. For example, your high school principal only needs to have access to communicate with the high school contacts. Don’t allow them access to everyone in the district. Of course, they can opt for messaging to only go to the high school in each message, but if they forget once and send to all, it can be a very confusing situation, and one that never needed to happen.

Another key point is to review annually. Every year, there are shake-ups in administration. Principals, assistant principals, and others move in, move up, move over, or move out. The permissions for your system need to be updated to reflect those changes every year.

Message Precision

The absolute best thing that you can do to allow your team to message precisely is to differentiate the audience. There are many specific groups you may need to communicate with on a regular basis. For example: 

  • Bus 25 had a mechanical issue and is now running an hour late.
  • Permission slips for the fourth grade’s museum field trip are due tomorrow.
  • Chorus practice is canceled due to teacher illness.

In these instances, you really want to have groups set up for your busses, your grades, and your activities. If you don’t, your options are to either not communicate the information or to over-communicate it to a bunch of people completely unaffected. When you message everyone with information that isn’t relevant to them, you’re training them that these calls or notifications from your school are not important. Over time, you’ll teach your families to not answer your calls and not read your emails. 

These individual groups should be set up ahead of time so that you can make calls specifically to them. To make this most effective, whenever you can, you should use the option of setting up parameters rather than uploading a list. Parameters will allow the system to search and collect the proper contacts before each message (for example, all students in 4th grade) rather than you having to constantly update a list with changing membership (uploading the list of 4th graders every time someone enrolls or withdraws). Generally, if the group is based on something that already exists in your student information system (grade level, bus number, etc), you can (and should) set it up as a parameter. Smaller groups that probably won’t be tracked in your student information system are typically activity-based.

Remember, don’t call the whole school because one bus is late or because chorus practice is canceled. Have yourself set up to communicate directly to those groups to keep your system at top effectiveness.

young woman's reaction to various phone calls

Wrong Numbers

“I don’t have a kid at your school. Stop calling me!” is one of the most frustrating situations all around. Sometimes, these folks are pretty angry—after all, they’ve been woken up, disturbed in the evening, and whatever else due to ongoing calling or messaging. They aren’t part of your school family, so it’s easy to dismiss them. But that’s the exact wrong thing to do. Resolving the problem quickly and effectively is very important for community relations. You do not want the only thing this person knows about your school to be that you can’t seem to control your calling system.

How does this situation occur? It’s often a data entry error. But there are also many instances where a family’s phone number changed and didn’t update you. When the number was reassigned, the number was already set to receive your messaging.

The best way to think of this situation is that the caller is helping you find incorrect data. To best resolve this, you need to have a process. When you find out that the contact information is wrong, you’ll usually need to use the notification system to track down the student, and then make the change in the student information system that feeds it. Otherwise, as we mentioned earlier, the data might overwrite what you put in the notification system.

Languages

Make sure your system can auto-translate into different languages to accommodate all of your families. The translations may not be perfect, but they are certainly better than nothing. Follow your vendor’s guidelines for setting up those alternate languages.

With regard to translations, consider which of the student information system’s language fields should trigger your notification system’s translation. For example, I’ve seen districts basically set up to translate for students in the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. However, in many cases, that’s not the outcome you want...

  • A child could be adopted to English-speaking parents.
  • The parent of an ESOL student may speak fluent English.
  • A student may have exited the ESOL program (thanks to your awesome teachers), but the parents may still need communication support.

It is best to have a separate field in your student information system that lists the language of the parent/guardian to ensure that you are engaging all families to the best of your abilities.

Conclusion

There are many elements to a notification system, and we’ve just touched on a few today. Hopefully, this will get you thinking about how to use the system to help you enhance your overall school communications efforts and build engagement. Take the time to make sure it’s right so that it doesn’t become a constant source of aggravation for you and your families.

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Using COVID-19 school downtime to ramp up your school communication strategies
2020-06-09
Ramp up

Now’s your chance. While schools across the country are shut down for various lengths of time and staff and students work remotely to ensure students continue to learn, administrative staff can focus on improving communications. Without the minute-by-minute distractions of typical responsibilities, you can focus on the strategies that will help improve school communication when things are back to normal. And yes, they will get back to normal—or at least to a new normal!

Where to begin

Website first

Take a look at your website. If it is outdated and not responsive (mobile-friendly), use this time for a redesign. You can gather input from your remote staff who might have a bit more time to focus their thoughts and share their ideas. Include your office staff so the most frequently asked questions from parents are included and can be easily found.

Some tips to consider when doing a website redesign are covered in detail in these articles:

website design wire frame on whiteboard
While you are at it, be sure to include accessibility in your website redesign. It is far easier to do it right the first time than to try to mitigate the situation when the Office of Civil Rights attorney comes knocking at your door. This includes making sure the documents you link to as PDF attachments are also remediated so they are accessible to screen readers. The following articles will provide more detail for those of you who need a bit of guidance.

Social media strategy

While it is tempting to become discouraged over the negatives of social media, you can’t let fear of engaging stop you from participating. These platforms are where your customers (both parents and students) are getting their information, and if you aren’t out there, someone else is providing information that you have no control over. So, be a proactive participant. 

Be a positive and trusted resource for information. And, as many schools found out during the COVID-19 outbreak, having an effective social media presence in place prior to a crisis is critical.  

In conjunction with your website, create both a communications’ plan for the events you know about in advance, gather information from your staff to keep the stories flowing, and share impromptu posts that arise along the way. You’ve got such good news happening every day, so get those stories out there. Your parents and prospective parents want to learn about your school, your student and staff successes, the engagement, the excitement, and the enthusiasm—so share it. We all like to be a part of something good, so let parents know that their children are a part of something great.

Here are some helpful articles that will help you get started or learn more about what works well for other schools:

computer keyboard with green key labeled customer service
Remote customer service

Customer service is more than just a pleasant smile in the front office; it is the experience provided by your website, phone calls, parent messaging, teacher to parent conversations, staff interaction, and social media. Outstanding customer service becomes the culture and sets the expectations. So, use this time to improve and smooth all of those customer interactions.

Is your website intuitive and is it easy to find information? Do phone calls and messages get answered when someone calls in? Are forms and parent requirements available online? Can parents contact your staff or, in an effort to avoid spam, is it impossible to contact anyone at your school? It is important that you view these experiences through your customers’ eyes (and your customers include your staff). 

Not convinced that this is a critical issue? Find out what poor customer service is costing your school. Look at some ways to improve your online customer service through emails and written communications with Customer Service Netiquette. Take your school customer service from good to great!

two young female students walking toward school
Preparation for back-in-session

In preparation for going back to school, take the time now to plan a communications strategy that covers the most important concerns parents will have (and those they have now about when school resumes). 

  • Are there make-up days or weeks? 
  • Is there information to share about graduating seniors? 
  • Are the start or end dates for the school year changing? 
  • Are there learning opportunities for students to make up specific classes? 
  • What social distancing procedures will students and staff be required to use upon returning? 

Create online resources with all the necessary information on your school website and use your social media to let parents know where this resource is located. Put in the time and effort to make these website resources valuable to your parents and the community.

Speaking of being back in session, be sure to gather stories from your staff and students about what positives they experienced during the downtime. What did they learn that they might not have considered before? What interests or talents did they discover or develop? What did they learn about themselves that will help them in the future? Who made a positive impact on them during the crisis and in what way? Use these stories in your social media as a regular series or a series of articles on your website that you link to from your social media posts. 

During a crisis, there is much to struggle through. But, more often, we gain strengths and learn life-altering lessons that make us into better people. By sharing the positive, everyone is encouraged and strengthened to see what our fellow men and women are capable of, and these stories inspire us to be stronger and optimistic as well.

We're here for you!

Of course, for many of the areas we’ve discussed above, School Webmasters is here to help you succeed. Unlike our competitors, we actually do the work and become your behind-the-scenes staff to do the grunt work efficiently and affordably so your own staff can focus on education. Whether it is website design, accessibility or remediation, social media management, or public relations support, let us focus on what we know so you can focus on what you do best (and save money and time in the process). It’s a win-win for your staff and your students and their parents. Get a quote or give us a call at 888.750.4556 and tell us what your biggest challenges are. If we can’t help, we can make recommendations for who can.

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Be Prepared for Emergency Communications
2020-05-26
emergency contact information button on keyboard

The moment you are in an emergency situation is not the time to prepare for an emergency situation. Since you work in education, you know that a crisis can occur at any moment—and that the stakes are very, very high when it does. It’s not a matter of “if” but of “when.” That means that the time is now to prepare for emergency situations. 

So, let’s help you thrive in your next emergency situation. The bottom line is that you need to have the tools ready, the personnel prepped, and the relationships built. That way, when the chips are down, you’ll be able to focus on the task at hand and add value every way possible. Think about it—if you need to take an action in 30 minutes or less, do you want to spend 10 minutes putting together generic language you could have already prepared? Or do you want to reflect on the specific impacts of the situation at hand and bake in more thought and strategy to your response? These tips will help you better utilize your precious time when it matters most.   

be prepared road sign

Prepare Messaging

The bulk of your emergency or crisis situations will be of a few different types. Unexpected school closure. Cautionary lockdown. Appalling staff member behavior. Disappointing student behavior. Don’t wait for your next emergency to pull the file from the last time it happened. Make time, find time, and commit time to pre-writing a few statements to cover these most-likely situations. 

Legal matters will always require a delicate hand and specific communications strategy that typically can’t be pre-set. Always consult with your division’s legal team to ensure that matters related to students, employees, and other sensitive topics are handled appropriately. 

There’s no way to have a perfectly pre-written statement. The goal here is just to help reduce the need for some timely labor in some instances. So, choose three to five situations, and edit a previously-used letter into a template. Ensure that you’ve checked it for adherence to the emergency plan your school or district has in place.  

Then get the template statement pre-approved from higher-ups. Consider placing the agreed-upon language on letterhead or into whatever nearly-done stage is right for your process. You can even highlight in red any places where you’ll need to add in facts later. 

When you reflect on this messaging, make sure to focus on the core elements: Facts, Actions Taken, Next Steps. Primarily, your communication home needs to give information. Of course, values are important. We all know that “student safety is of paramount importance.” You do need to establish and convey your values in many of your statements. But the key information to convey is what has happened, your immediate response actions, and your plan moving forward. 

For example, let’s say you need to dismiss early due to a water main break. Your statement needs to include: 

  • The most general information about the situation 
              “Due to a water main break,” is probably enough
  • Student status, location, and security measures in response 
               “Teaching and learning is continuing in classrooms at this time.” 
  • Details on pickup time, logistics, and process
              “We will dismiss all students at 1:00 p.m. today,” adding in any needed specifics. 
  • In this example, remember that you communicate on behalf of the schools—not the public utility department. Your messaging should not specify any details about the water main break itself. Let the municipal PR team communicate about the cause, restoration time, or other issues. Your focus is solely on the impact to the students and the school day.

    take action, set goals

    Pre-Educate Families About Emergency Communications

    It is important to clearly inform families how communication will happen—and then to stick to it. Let parents know the specific methods of communication you’ll use to notify them of school closures, security issues, etc. 

    An area of your school website should be dedicated to listing this information. This should be a fairly exhaustive listing of timelines for decisions, local/regional broadcast partners for sharing information, mass notification tools, website and social media assets you use, and more. 

    Also include links for families to update their contact information. And invite them to follow you on social media where they can regularly receive up-to-date information. Occasionally promoting where site visitors can find the information with an eye-catching image on your school website home page is a great way to keep it out there. You could also recreate the key elements in a flyer to send home, and you could use your mass notification system at some appropriate time to direct families to the web page as well. 

    Ideally, this information will be consistent across all schools in your district. It should be posted on the school division website, and each individual school website should link directly to it. Consistency is critical.

    Once you have that plan set out, you need to follow it. Adhering to the plan breeds confidence. From a more practical perspective, sending messages also builds behaviors and habits that result in higher connection rates.

    Optimize Your Mass Notification System

    Your well-crafted message needs to get through to your families. The setup of the notification system your school uses is the key to making that happen. 

    Most school districts have a notification system with a proprietary system. It’s important that you or someone on your team is an expert in how to use it effectively—or as close as you can get. There is more to it than just picking up a phone, selecting “Call Everybody,” and sending out messages. 

    We will get into more details about these system tips in a future post, but here are the key things to remember:

    • Work with your IT and registration teams to ensure the data is correctly entered into the student information system and that it flows correctly into the notification system.
    • Create groups (grade levels, activity participants, buses, etc.) to help the message meet your precise needs.
    • Make sure district-based and school-based users have the right permissions to communicate with the correct families.

    Why are these important? When a crisis comes along, you will be able to confidently get your message out to families and be sure the right people receive it. You’ll also be empowered to properly sequence your communications to stakeholder groups. For example, you may want to update your staff members at a particular location before communicating broadly to the community. If your principal has the right permissions and everyone is coordinating together, that’s an easy job, which demonstrates some sophistication on the PR side of your communications.  

    know your role

    Know Your Team and Roles

    In difficult moments, you won’t want to have in-fighting, confusion, or duplicated efforts. Make sure you have a clear point-person for each key responsibility. For example, if you have building issues, your facilities lead can’t make decisions, take action, and handle stakeholder communication. Be sure your point person can clearly evaluate and report the key information. That person may also be responsible for evaluating the statements to be released, or another person may have that responsibility, and another should have the task of the actual communications.

    It’s also important to make sure that school-based staff members know what their communications roles are in an emergency. For example, the decision to delay the opening of school by two hours may affect when (or if) that bus is taking the fourth-graders to the museum for the field trip in the afternoon. Once the division-wide decision has been made and communicated, it is appropriate for the school-based leadership to push out a responsive operations update to its families. As always, to prevent over-communication, aim for precise messaging. In that example, a best practice would be for the school-based administrator to send that field trip update message only to the fourth-grade families.  

    build relationships - man building a bridge with blocks

    Build Relationships with External Partners

    You already know who you’ll be working with in an emergency. Local law enforcement. Fire and rescue. City Hall. A small-town mayor. Utility companies. Highway department. And others. Be intentional about connecting with them. 

    Are you in a region that sees snow disruptions? Host a luncheon for some of the involved agencies in the late fall/early winter. Does your community have a new director of public works? Give the department some tickets to a high school game and spend some time with them in the stands—or better yet, on the sidelines. That rapport will make it much easier to work through the crises you’ll share. 

    This isn’t for nothing. When emergencies sneak up and multiple agencies must work together, it means a bunch of people need to align with each other and work together. By definition, it’s already a tense situation, and there are a range of different priorities. You don’t need minor issues like a curt comment or bad first impression to create more separation and head-butting. Getting to know others ahead of time will help you avoid those issues and give you a head start on being in synch when it matters most. 

    While you can never be fully prepared for an emergency communications situation, you can put time and energy into preparing your tools, preparing your people, and building relationships. Having this jump start can give you just a bit more breathing room in a crisis, which results in better outcomes for students, staff, families, and your community.

    Need some help?

    Need help with school communications? Check out our PR4 Schools services and get the help you need and can afford!
    Need help with school social media? Get affordable staff to manage it for you with our Social4Schools services.

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    Providing Outstanding Virtual Customer Service During a Crisis
    2020-05-12
    customer service personnel managing multiple tasks

    K–12 schools have never before had a situation like they are now experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most are closed. Some have gone to virtual education while others are simply hunkering down and waiting for things to return to normal. But it is during a crisis that your school’s true colors come out, and your efforts now will influence future outcomes for years to come. What you do now matters.

    We support hundreds of U.S. schools, and we’ve seen a variety of leadership responses to the COVID-19 crisis. The best schools, and best administrators and teachers, are communicative and proactive. They reach out to parents and provide support and guidance, knowing that parents are likewise in a state of crisis and alarm. They understand that some parents are being laid off. Some are sick. Some are just not sure how to react to such unusual conditions. 

    Unfortunately, some schools are doing nothing and have gone radio silent. A few schools have actually requested that we pause all of their social media communications while their school is shuttered. Huge mistake! Terrible customer service and worse public relations.

    Be amazing

    Take this opportunity to be amazing

    When it comes to serving our customers—in our case, that is our students and their parents—it is about taking care of them. Your success now depends on your customer service—that is, your virtual customer service. So, whether it is the teacher to student learning that is taking place or the office staff or administrators responding to questions or concerns, here are some tips to assure that your customer service excels virtually:

    Make a personal connection: know the child’s name, interests, and other personal info about the parents when possible so your comments are specific to their interests.

    Over-communicate: If necessary, set up an auto-response so that your customer/parent knows their email or other request was received. Although automated, it is a good start and a great way of saying, “thank you for reaching out to me/us.”

    Respect their time: Create some standards for responses to requests. This can be school-wide or individual, but live up to your promises. If you commit to responding to a parent email request within 24 hours, tell them they can expect to hear from you within 24 hours and then make sure you keep that promise. The longer you take to respond to your customers’ needs, the more likely they are to become disenchanted and begin to mistrust your concern for their needs.

    man in suit giving thumbs up and holding a clock

    Set expectations: Let parents know what to expect. If you can’t respond virtually until in the afternoon, let them know. If you will be unavailable for a few days, your out-of-office email message should indicate that (and don’t forget to turn it off when you return). If you need to schedule on-call coverage for the phones, especially during a school closure during something like this COVID-19 crisis or even in the summer, be sure you have full coverage. Whatever hours are not covered should be spelled out in your messaging.

    Get feedback: Consider sending out a feedback email or short survey after email or phone interactions. This will help you modify your customer service responses, and it also lets parents know they have been heard and have a chance to express themselves. It tells them you care what they think. Then be sure to thank them for that feedback, tell them you appreciate their insight, and let them know what you will do with the knowledge they provide.

    Earn their trust. Be consistent. Do what you say you are going to do so they can trust you. Don’t blame others, but be accountable. If you are confronted with a problem, you own it. 

    Tone and word choice matters. If you are virtual, you might not think your tone matters, but your word choice and how you respond to questions is an indication of your tone when you are virtual. Admittedly, it is harder to avoid being misunderstood without the benefit of visual or audible presence. However, you can still project a positive and customer-friendly tone in all of your school communications. Start with smart word choices like these:

    • Please and thank you
    • My pleasure (instead of “no problem")
    • You’re welcome
    • What I can do is…
    • I understand how _____ (frustrating, disappointing, etc.) that must be…
    • I’m so sorry that happened. Let me see what I can do to make it right.
    • I’m happy to help!
    • Is there anything else I can do to assist? (Use this phrase if you were indeed able to help them with whatever they called or emailed about.)

    Provide self-service. This can simply mean that you provide an area on your school website where parents can get answers to current concerns. During a specific emergency or crisis, make sure a link to your easy-access answers are front and center by moving this link or button to the home page so it isn’t buried on your website. This can be as simple as a page with links to other resources.

    customer self-service

    All of your staff are customer service representatives

    During the COVID-19 pandemic and your school’s closure, not all of your staff will have virtual contact with your customers. But once our schools have resumed, all of your staff have contact with customers in one way or another. Those customers might be fellow staff members, but if they work at or volunteer at your school, they are customer service representatives. 

    How are they representing your school? If the answer is poorly, then you have a training issue, and it must be addressed. Good leaders know that and take steps to provide just such training and recognize the successes. Be sure you understand what poor customer service is costing your school and take steps to improve.

    empower your staff

    When your customers need customer support help, you can be sure of one thing: they aren’t coming to you to hear about how busy you are or how difficult the jobs are or “that isn’t our policy.” They are coming to you for a solution. So, be sure that all of your staff members understand the importance of their role as customer service representatives and let them feel free to find solutions without undue amounts of red tape. I like the motto used by Nordstroms, “Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” Empower your staff to feel likewise and find ways to meet your customers’ needs, especially during the tough times.

    How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook
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    Distance Learning Accessibility during the Coronavirus Pandemic
    2020-04-28

    While the world is fighting to find a cure for the Coronavirus (COVID-19), schools are scrambling to get their curriculum online and available to all of their students. Home-based distance learning has become the new norm for every school in the U.S. This raises concern when it comes to how accessible the learning materials are. Aside from the concern that every student must have access to a computer or other device to view the posted materials, there is also the concern that disabled students are denied access due to the inaccessibility of the school’s website or posted documents.

    On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released a short webinar on online education and the importance of web accessibility. In the webinar, assistant secretary of education, Kenneth Marcus, stated the following:

    “Online learning is a powerful tool for educational institutions as long as [emphasis added] it is accessible for everyone. Services, programs, and activities online must be accessible to persons, including individuals with disabilities, unless equally effective alternate access is provided in another manner. ” 

    The Department also released a fact sheet titled Addressing the Risk of COVID-19 in Schools While Protecting the Civil Rights of Students. The Fact Sheet points out that if a student is required or advised to stay home due to health concerns either from the public health authorities or school officials for an extended period of time because of the Coronavirus, schools are required to make provisions that allow students to maintain educational services. Technology is a great way to ensure schools meet this requirement. That is, as long as the technology is accessible. This means that if the school’s website or the documents on it are not accessible, the risk for a civil rights violation is greater.

    Test your website’s accessibility

    The only accurate way to know if you have the Coronavirus is to test for it. Similarly, the only way to know if your website is accessible is to test it—and test it often. As mentioned in the webinar, testing can and should include both automated and manual testing techniques. At School Webmasters, we use both of these techniques on the websites we manage and for interested clients whose websites we don’t manage. There are many free resources available, such as WebAIM’s free browser extension commonly known as the WAVE tool, that will help you run automated tests on your website. You can download the extension for the Chrome browser or the add-on for the Firefox browser.

    If you manage your school’s website, and it includes more than a few pages (most school websites do), you will want to look into a paid subscription that lets you scan multiple pages at one time. (If we manage your website for you, this service is included without cost.) The automated scan will give you a general idea of your website’s accessibility and show you where you need to make adjustments to allow everyone access to your web content.

    Manually testing your website for accessibility is the most accurate way to ensure accessible digital content. Accessibility is about real people, and real people should always be involved in testing web accessibility. We recommend starting with testing keyboard accessibility. Our recent article about keyboard accessibility provides tips on how to test keyboard access and fix keyboard accessibility issues. 

    Of course, there is a lot more to web accessibility than simply running an automated scan and testing keyboard accessibility. The recommended standards to follow are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG provides three levels of conformance, namely, A, AA, and AAA. If you are an educational institution, you must comply with WCAG level AA, so whoever is charged with testing your website’s compliance should be familiar with each of these success criteria. 

    Training is key to web accessibility

    staff sitting at a computer training on web accessibility

    Nobody at your school would ever imagine hiring a teacher who is not trained in teaching. Likewise, no one should ever expect someone to post accessible web content if they are not trained in web and document accessibility. Also, never expect someone who isn’t trained in web accessibility and doesn’t know the WCAG standards to test their website’s accessibility. 

    There are a few options for web accessibility training. 

    1. Complete self-directed training.
      With this option, you can use resources provided by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to study and learn everything there is to know about web accessibility. We recommend having at least one person whose job is solely dedicated to web accessibility so they can train anyone who has access to your website.

    2. Train with an accessibility expert.
      With over 75 success criteria to understand and master testing for, hiring an accessibility expert to train your staff is the quickest and easiest way to get up to speed on web accessibility. An accessibility expert is someone who has already completed web accessibility training, remains current with web accessibility requirements, and continues to learn new web accessibility techniques to maintain an accessible website. They will also be able to provide tips and tricks to help you understand the requirements. We offer personalized web and document accessibility training. Contact us to find out more and schedule your training session.

    3. Hire an accessibility expert to handle web accessibility for you.If web accessibility training, testing, and managing is more than you and your staff can handle, School Webmasters will handle all of your web accessibility, allowing you to focus on your area of expertise. Our accessibility services include
      • Accessible website development
      • Accessible website management
      • Web accessibility testing (audits)
      • Web accessibility training
      • Document accessibility training
      • Document accessibility remediation

    It may seem overwhelming, but the key is to start somewhere and start now. The sooner you take the first step to  provide an accessible website, the sooner everyone, including teachers, staff, students, and parents, will have access to everything you offer on your website.

    Prioritize web accessibility, especially during the Coronavirus pandemic

    During the Coronavirus pandemic, prioritizing your website’s accessibility is more important now than ever before. Schools need to be careful not to let the accessibility of their website fall short during this critical time. As expected, we’ve seen an overwhelming number of urgent website update requests to make announcements and add links to learning materials. Our director of customer support, Michelle Noland, reported that between March 13 and April 1, 2020, we received over 2400 school website update requests related to the Coronavirus and distance learning. Our update teams continue to work around the clock (literally) to ensure every request was completed ASAP. 

    Due to the urgent postings of schools’ curriculum, we have received many requests for posting inaccessible content, such as scanned pictures of documents. As mentioned in the U.S. Department of Education’s webinar, website accessibility includes accessible PDF documents. Teachers and staff often think the best way to provide their learning materials quickly is to simply post a picture of a document or a scanned textbook page that they would have otherwise handed out in class. As accessibility experts, this option makes us cringe. That is, unless the document itself was created accessibly. 

    Although, it’s not always the case, we can say that we do have some clients who prioritize accessibility and have trained their staff on the correct way to create accessible documents. Kudos to these schools for taking advantage of our free document accessibility training! We also have many clients who rely on us to make their documents accessible for them. Again, kudos to these schools for prioritizing their students' needs and making sure every student receives their learning materials in a way they can access them.

    School Webmasters — the vaccine for your web accessibility concerns 

    doctor holding a vaccine to protect website again accessibility lawsuit

    While the Coronavirus may never completely go away, we are hopeful that biologists will soon discover a vaccine to protect us from its debilitating and often fatal effects and allow us to remove the restrictions placed on the many resources our nation would otherwise have available. Thankfully, there is already a vaccine that enables everyone to access your digital content without restrictions and reduce the risk of a web accessibility lawsuit. 

    School Webmasters will work with you and your staff to ensure your distance learning options are accessible. Whether it’s a teacher learning the new skill of teleworking, a student with a visual, hearing, cognitive, or other disability, or a parent needing to access your website for important coronavirus updates, we provide all the support you need. Let’s leave the barrier-making to the N95 masks and not our websites.

    581114
    Sustaining Your Message Through the Pandemic
    2020-04-14
    Together we will get through this

    You’re a superintendent or principal with no school in session, charged with continuing to communicate during a quarantine closure. What can you do to make this work?

    We want kids to learn—but we know that kids learn differently. The most important thing right now is not for them to keep to the exact standards on the pacing guide. Be content with supporting families in keeping a schedule of feeding their minds. With school closure likely to be extended indefinitely (for many, the academic year has already been called off), now is the time to put some intentionality into your communications plan for this phase.

    Leadership image

    Follow Communications Directives of Leadership

    First and foremost, the crisis communications coming from your district and board are the priority. The most important thing to do in communications right now is to be aligned and support that messaging.

    If your district has a proper stakeholder sequencing process in place for its communications, you know about most of the key top-level messaging ahead of time. Be sure to steer clear of the communications channels around those times. If an important emergency update is set to go out from the district at 6 p.m., don’t send a morale-boosting communication out at 5:30 p.m., which would increase the likelihood that families won’t check the second (and, in this case, critical) message.

    Ensure that all of your messaging is aligned with the district’s communications. You should consider those the parameters, and your role is to provide localized details for your school-based audience. For example, if the district has a meal distribution plan, your job is to highlight the locations or options that best serve your families.

    Everything, everything, everything you do needs to be aligned with the emergency communications posture of your district.

    buddy system image represented by two fingers

    Use the Buddy System

    Because of the crisis, you are spending hours locked in video conferences with the same district leadership team members. You need to be intentional about interacting with others outside of that group to make sure you don’t lose connection to the needs of the people you are serving. These connections will also help you stay grounded in general. With so much communication happening, you also need to be able to bounce things off select people to get feedback and make sure you are hitting the mark. So get some people you trust into an informal inner circle and pick up the phone on occasion to discuss certain things with them.

    Can you and a principal at another school in your district (or even another district) touch base a couple times a week to discuss how you are implementing directives at your respective schools? Can you call one of the teachers who has children at the same school and get his or her feedback from both the parent and staff member perspectives? How about checking in with a friend in the community for the word on the street about the school’s response? Of course, in all of these interactions, you have to be very careful about what information you are actually giving out. But the important goal here isn’t about giving information; it’s about listening. Make sure that people understand your priorities and what you and the district are asking of them. Find out what people are talking about and worrying about. You just might get some great information to take back to the team at your next video conference call.

    Involve & Support Teachers

    Many teacher work agreements stipulate that they are not required to work during school closures. But you know that plenty are more than willing and want to keep connecting with their students. Right now, as schools across the country are beginning to officially end their academic years, they want more than ever to be connected. Offer them meaningful ways to do so.

    How about a teacher take-over on your Instagram page? Or a nightly Facebook Live with a mini-lesson and some fun? Or a gallery of artwork on your school website?

    Where possible, try to give your team a defined process. Does your district use a platform for learning, like Google Classroom, or a decentralized communications tool like Remind? Encourage teachers to keep using the pre-existing tools during the closure, rather than creating new spaces and processes.

    supporting teachers

    Many districts are wrestling with issues around teachers creating their own new social media pages, webpages, and other communication channels. If a teacher does want to establish something new (maybe like a new Facebook group), make sure that they are following all essential social media policies. Remember, this is something new that families will be asked to join, so it’s another step for them. That could lead to some being left out.

    You should aim to be out in front of this. Include it next time you have a regular message or an encouraging all-staff message praising everything your teachers are doing. As part of it, just include a reminder that there is a policy—and include a link to it. Remember, there’s no malice intended here. With everything going on, teachers are just excited about creating new learning opportunities. But we want to make sure it’s done in accordance with the rules.

    That said, if the district plan is cumbersome, it may be something that needs attention. If it requires approval from your division’s PR team, you may be experiencing significant delays, understandably. So support your teachers by helping them navigate the situation to find the best solution to foster those opportunities to learn and connect.

    image of resources page

    Make a Resources Page

    This should be completely separate from your updates web page, although you may want to link to it from that main page and your school website’s home page. This page is a repository of all kinds of online resources for families and students to access. Ideally, you should divide it up by general levels or subjects, but the goal here is to have some fun resources to help offer online experiential learning separate from your defined curriculum.

    Examples:

    These fun supplemental opportunities are a great way to put together some resources for families to connect. A simple Google search will help you track down more. Be sure to start with your local and regional resources—many of them are hurting and any support will help sustain them.

    Of course, you can also find seemingly endless resources based on each class and curriculum as well. This project may make sense to coordinate with teachers, many of whom already have relevant online resources for their specific learning objectives. If possible, collect these into another space on your resource page, as they may interest other students and families as well.

    Keep Connecting

    School Webmasters has seen many creative and fun ways to keep morale up during these challenging times. Teacher parades through the neighborhood, social media spirit weeks, nightly teacher readings, and so much more. You don’t have to do all of them. This isn’t about making your school community Pinterest-perfect. But you need to try something. These are uncharted times, and everyone is just doing their best to find some socially-distant ways to appropriately connect. 

    Greg Dorazio is a communications strategist with 15 years of experience as a reporter, editor-in-chief, and a school PR pro for both a rural and urban district. Now a communications consultant, he improves strategic storytelling through web, social media, design, and more for his clients in associations, public health, education, and small business.

    577191
    Effective School Communication During a Crisis
    2020-03-24
    Image of viruses

    In the shadow of the emerging Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, silence seemed tempting to some school communications leaders. After all, you aren’t the Centers for Disease Control. How important could it be for parents to hear from you until major school-related action was required?

    Turns out—very important. At School Webmasters, we’ve seen that districts who used early and consistent communication are faring better with stakeholders than those who took a wait-and-see approach until action was necessary.

    Crisis is the WORST time to stop communicating—especially on the front end.  Those who were ahead of the game conveyed preliminary information, established expectations, and laid the groundwork for future critical communication. Those who didn’t ramp up early allowed uncertainty and even neighborhood gossip to lead the conversation around their action steps and how they might be implemented.

    word cloud for crisis management words

    If you dropped the ball on the early communication, that’s okay. But it’s time to dig deeper and improve your messaging moving forward. Now that most schools are closed (or likely will be soon), you need to focus on reliable communication to families. You’ve got to tell your story. You’ve got quite a story these days, don’t you? Focus on these six fundamentals to drive your messaging home and connect with stakeholders.

    • Convey Empathy
    • Take Criticism as Opportunity
    • Pick Your Pace
    • Stay Ahead
    • Highlight Your Heroes
    • Stay in Your Lane

    Convey Empathy

    Your team is working crazy hours, being forced to implement untested processes, and feeling anxious about almost everything. Just remember, your families are feeling it too. They are struggling with finances, futures, disruptions, and disappointments. What they need from you—first and foremost—is to know that you get it. That you are aligned with their values and focused on the issues they care about.  So everything you put out should have an air of support, togetherness, and compassion for everyone in your school community.

    Handles cradling a heart to convey empathy

    Remember, your families usually want to support you. It doesn’t always feel like that, but I promise it’s true. Feed their desire to have your back by reasonably sharing what you can and giving them timelines or thresholds for future decisions or actions. Do it all in a way that lets them know you share their overarching concerns.

    Take Criticism as Opportunity

    Let’s say your district had 36 hours to create a school feeding plan in the wake of closure. In fairness, it might not be perfect, right? Your plan may even seriously inconvenience certain families in major ways, and they might tell you about it. They want to be heard and included, and they aren’t wrong. But if you minimize them, you will be.

    Look, of course, it wasn’t an ideal situation, and, we know your team is doing its best. But there is going to be room for improvement. So don’t dig in your heels and push back over minor details in a plan you weren’t all that excited about in the first place. Am I right? Even if the criticisms aren’t delivered in a positive way, take them as an opportunity to do better. Whatever the issues might be, work toward a solution. It might be easier than you think. At the very least, make sure folks feel like they were heard and that you care about their concerns.

    Bonus points if you can use a line like, “Well, you bring up a good point. We thought of that, but couldn’t figure out a way to accomplish it. Do you have any ideas on how we can solve that?”

    Pick Your Pace

    Every day, this looks and feels more like a marathon than a sprint. Don’t overcommit to a communication schedule, but make sure that you at least have one sketched out. Will your updates be time-blocked or milestone-based? What communication tools (such as school websites) do you have at your disposal to integrate this messaging? How can you structure this so that families have the proper expectations for when and how you’ll be giving out information?

    track runner keeping pace

    At some points, such as initial school closures, you might need a heavier schedule of communications. At others, you might be able to back off. You don’t need to carve this in stone, but you should be cognizant of the need for intentionality and a structure for how messaging is dripped out over time.

    Stay Ahead

    Lead your stakeholders to the next milestones. That’s part of what went well for the districts that communicated effectively before the crisis struck. They did things like establishing the location of information, such as their designated school webpages. They also reassured families that they were aware of the issue and that planning was underway. Sure, nobody likes a worry-wart. But when you’re in a pinch, it sure is nice to be around someone who is prepared, right? Families appreciated having some early indications about general response posture, collaborative partners, and focus. It built trust.

    That’s going to be true of future developments in this pandemic (and any other crisis as well). Even before the enemy is at the gates, aligning your stakeholders is important. So when you start to see shifting winds, determine how you can gently adjust some of your messaging in the right direction before you have to act. That will allow your school or district to more effectively lead everyone where you may have to go.

    Highlight Your Heroes

    It’s very possible that you’ve never seen this level of commitment from your team. These are special times, and we are seeing the incredible dedication of school employees. Reward them by showing them the love. At least once a week, your social media pages should be showcasing someone going above and beyond to make this crazy situation work.

    woman with hands on hips and shadow showing a heros cape

    Our inclination is often to put a group picture of everyone out and say “Our team is the best!” But what truly connects with your audience is the story of one person. Give a little bio info and get a quote from them about why they do it (spoiler alert: because they love the kids). People enjoy that type of storytelling, and illustrating the hard work of your team one-by-one goes much further than a kudos to the masses. Please, recognize them, starting now.

    Stay in Your Lane

    When there is a criminal matter on school grounds, you let local law enforcement speak to the issue, don’t you? Take the same approach on the specific public health issues around this pandemic. You are not a health expert and should not act like you are one. Don’t remind people to wash their hands. Accomplish the same thing by using approved content from the CDC or local health department. If you hold a press conference, have a representative from the health department present to speak to the health issues, while you discuss school issues. In the same way, coordinate with state and local officials, nonprofit partners, or other agencies to ensure information is properly sourced and shared.

    Hopefully, these tips will help as you continue to tell your story through the pandemic disruptions. You are a leader in your community, and your voice is critical now. No matter what you’ve experienced over the past week, now is the time to move into the next phase with a spirit of community, confidence, and commitment to tell your story.

    Greg Dorazio, School Communications Strategist

    Greg Dorazio is a communications strategist with 15 years of experience as a reporter, editor-in-chief, and a school PR pro for both a rural and urban district. Now a communications consultant, he improves strategic storytelling through web, social media, design, and more for his clients in associations, public health, education, and small business.


    573727
    Web Accessibility Testing: Keyboard Accessibility
    2020-03-16
    keyboard with blue assessment key

    We all have our own way of doing things. Sometimes we do things differently just out of personal preference. Other times, we do things differently because it’s the only way we can actually do it. For example, when I complete an online form, I prefer to tab through each field rather than stopping to click on each field with a mouse and then returning to my keyboard to complete the field. That just takes too long. While this is my preference, for some users, it’s the only option because they can’t use a mouse. Whether it’s personal preference or a necessity, having a website that is keyboard accessible is vital to having a good user experience.

    Keyboard accessibility may be the most important feature to implement when creating accessible websites. A website that is designed with keyboard accessibility is a website that allows you to get to every interactive element on a web page using only a keyboard. Keyboard access is how someone who cannot use a mouse will navigate a website.

    Who needs keyboard access

    keyboard accessibility with temporary disability

    Oftentimes, when someone hears web accessibility, they will think it is mostly for blind users. However, web accessibility covers a wide range of disabilities. Here are a few examples of people who benefit from a keyboard accessible website:

    • Blind users
    • Someone with tremors that hinders their fine muscle control
    • Someone who has little or no use of their hands
    • Someone without hands
    • Someone with a temporary disability such as a broken arm
    • Someone who does not have access to a mouse or touchpad

    In addition to helping those who need to use the actual keyboard, keyboard accessibility also benefits someone who uses voice control. Assistive technologies used for voice control also rely on keyboard commands.

    How do I test for keyboard accessibility?

    Since keyboard accessibility is a crucial component of an accessible website, we’re relieved that it’s one of the easiest accessibility tests anyone can perform on a website. Follow the steps below to experience a website without a mouse. Not only will these steps test the keyboard accessibility of your website, but it will also provide perspective on the importance of keyboard accessibility.

    • Click on the browser tab and then put your mouse aside. You may be tempted to grab the mouse, but resist the temptation.
    • Use the TAB key and begin tabbing through the website.
    • Each time you press the TAB key, you should be able to see where you are focused. The video below shows how a keyboard accessible website allows you to visually follow where your focus is with each tab stop. The TAB key is used to tab through each interactive element of the web page. Keyboard focus indicators are present.


    • When you come to an element such as the menu navigation or quick links where more options are available, use the SPACEBAR, DOWN ARROW, or ENTER key to expand the additional options. Once expanded, use the TAB or ARROW keys to navigate through the list.
    • Confirm that focus is brought to each interactive element on the page by looking for a focus indicator. The focus indicator should be more than just a color change since not everyone can see color. In the example above, you see changes such as text-underline, enlarging elements, and dashed imaged outlines.

    If you do not see focus on an element, this means the element is not keyboard accessible, and you need to perform remediation to remove accessibility barriers on your website.

    How do I fix keyboard accessibility errors?

    If your website does not have any keyboard focus indicators present, the first thing to do is check your style sheet. Locate your CSS file and ensure you have a style set to add focus to links. You should find something similar to this: 

    a:focus {
    outline: 1px dashed #000;
    }

    This style indicates the addition of a 1px dashed black outline when a link is the focus. 

    If you do not see any styles in your CSS for :focus, add the above style and try tabbing through your website again. This may resolve most of your keyboard focus issues. Depending on the colors of your website, you may need to adjust the color of the outline. While outline is not the only way to bring focus to an interactive element, it is one of the most popular techniques.

    If, after adding the above CSS, you still do not see a visual keyboard focus indicator, it’s time to do some further investigating. View the HTML of your web page and look for instances of the attribute tabindex. Ensure elements do not have a negative tabindex (e.g., tabindex=”-1”). If you find a negative tabindex that can be removed without interfering with its intended functionality, remove it and test to see if this solves the issue. You may need to adjust some JavaScripts to allow scripting elements to receive keyboard focus.

    Additional considerations for keyboard navigation

    Besides ensuring each element receives keyboard focus, we need to consider additional techniques to improve keyboard accessibility. The following accessibility techniques are considered best practices in web design and development:

    • Include skip links
      • Use “skip to main content” links to allow users to skip navigation menus that are repeated on each page.
      • Use “skip list” links to provide a way for users to skip long lists of links.
    • Use a proper heading structure to allow screen reader users the ability to use keyboard shortcuts to navigate quickly to different topics on a web page.
    • Include ARIA landmarks and/or standard HTML5 structural elements (e.g., footer, header, nav, etc.) to allow users to jump to various sections on the page.

    An accessible website is about more than just meeting a standard or complying with accessibility laws. A website designed and developed with accessibility in mind provides an inclusive user experience so everyone can access and enjoy all of the information on your website. 

    Our DIY Website Accessibility Audit article provides additional information about testing your website for accessibility. Of course, if you need assistance conducting an accessibility audit, let us know. In addition to designing and developing accessible websites, we provide web accessibility services such web accessibility audits, web accessibility training, and document accessibility remediation. Essentially, when it comes to web accessibility, we do it all. Use the form below to contact us, and find out how quickly we can make your website accessible to everyone.

    Request Web Accessibility Information

    Do you need: (check all that apply)
    571416
    Responsive School Websites Offer a Whole New World
    2020-03-10
    Aladdin's lamp

    “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is a fairytale that never gets old. It’s a great story.  Even in its many versions, all of the Aladdin stories have some things in common: the lamp, three wishes, and (who could forget?) a genie. What is it about the story that readers and movie-goers like? 

    As one of our family’s favorites, Disney’s versions of “Aladdin” created a genie that was full of personality as well as “phenomenal cosmic powers.” Something that makes Genie so likeable is his shapeshifting abilities that allow him to both crack jokes and adapt to his surroundings.

    These days, just like the resilient Genie portrayed in “Aladdin,” your school website must have a responsive design that is adaptable based on the needs of your site visitors, whether on their desktop, smartphone, laptop, or tablet. Your school’s website must supply the information they seek in a seamless, convenient way. 

    If your school doesn’t have a responsive website design yet, I’ve got bad news for you—your website is old and outdated! 

    When it comes to technology, there is no place for old and outdated. For example, Microsoft is in the “End of Life” stage with Windows 7. In January 2020, the company will end support for any systems still running the outdated operating system. Apple does the same, dropping support for many older devices. Like it or not, when it comes to technology, it’s adapt or die. Let’s compare this to your school website. If your website hasn’t been updated in the last five years, chances are it may suffer from one or all of these issues: a lack of security, out of compliance with ADA requirements, or unresponsive. 

    In this blog, we’ll focus on what responsive design does for your school website. As you provide full access to your website for all devices you expand, deepen, and fortify your connection with your school community. 

    Let's look at some of the reasons responsive websites offer “a whole new world”—because by providing full access to your website on all devices, you are doing just that! 

    Tiny house held in a large hand

    “Phenomenal Cosmic Power, Itty-Bitty Living Space” 

    For Aladdin’s genie, he was limited by his living space, but online there are no spacial limits. In our fast-paced and quick-to-change world, it can be tricky to keep up, technologically-speaking.  A responsive website design (RWD) is a product that makes an easy-to-view and navigable experience for your site visitors, regardless of the device they are using. The website design responds to the orientation and size of the visitor’s screen, so no matter what device your visitors are using, the design will help your school put its best foot forward and create a smooth, accessible experience.

    School Webmaster’s Director of User Interface, Sarah King, explains, “Responsive design is thinking about the needs of the end user based on what type of device they are using, the size of that device, and what information is most important to see first based on screen size. For example, how do we maximize the use of the smaller real estate of a phone screen but still get all of the same information in an intuitive manner on each page?” Sarah continues, “One example would be the main navigation. The font would be super tiny and not very legible if we left it all in a horizontal row. We could put it into just a plain link list at the top of each page, but then it takes more scrolling to get to other information below it. Thus, the industry standard is to use a collapsible hamburger menu where this link list can be collapsed and hidden when its not being used.”

    Layouts of a school’s responsive website may change from device to device, depending on the screen size and resolution. Websites lose the high bandwidth and slow-to-load elements, such as large photos, when a mobile-friendly school website is viewed from a smartphone where the navigation is simplified. 

    Mobile-friendly websites require very little resizing, panning, or scrolling to get to the information visitors need. If a visitor is on a tablet or a desktop, your school website would automatically resize for those device sizes.

    Here’s an example of how one school’s website changes depending on the device. 

    Examples of responsive websites on desktop, tablet, and phone

    Poof! What Do You Need?

    These days, schools must be in the marketing business. One important tip to remember is that it’s not always about what you want others to know about your school. It’s about what they want to know. Schools that excel at public relations and customer service consider their prospective school community as well as their current parents and students. Your website's content is for them. 

    Considering a topic? Think of them. Wondering how to word something or which tone to set with a certain communique? Think of them. If you’re not sure what they need most from your school’s website, talk to them and find out. Online surveys are a great way to reach a large group and gather in the information. 

    Sit Down and Get Your Wishes

    If you’ve been procrastinating a redesign because you’re not convinced it matters to your audience, please reconsider. Even if your school or district is located in a rural community with limited internet access, parents and students across the board demographically have internet access and devices, especially on smartphones. 

    When developing a responsive website, be careful not to get too fancy. Tried and true website architecture works. It works because people know where to go to get what they are looking for. Use horizontal and drop-down navigation if needed. Quick links help target certain audiences such as students, parents, staff, and community. Categories should not be your primary navigational structure however, because not all your visitors will fit those molds.

    Little boy in toy car with megaphone saying I will not be silenced

    You Need Not Be Silent

    In 2019, Naomi Scott moved audiences with the new song, “I Won’t Be Silent” in Disney’s live-action version of Aladdin. Your school website will stand up and speak out when it allows visually impaired users to view it without having to use zooming because of it’s responsive design that allows it to reflow when it’s resized.

    A responsive design assists with accessibility standards. If you need to become accessible, consider creating a responsive design at the same time. Responsiveness and accessibility serve the same functions; the two are very complementary. It is ideal to develop both at the same time. The strategy involved in making a site that adjusts to various devices requires coding a site to standards that also move you toward website accessibility. Going responsive is a step in the right direction toward school website accessibility. 

    Website ADA compliance is a requirement and at the heart of website accessibility. Fortunately, a responsive design, together with an ADA-compliant website helps ensure compatibility with the different devices your current and prospective students and their families use. It also helps to ensure the proper functioning of screen readers and other accessibility devices. 


    a diamond in the rough

    A Diamond in the Rough

    To create a responsive website design, developers usually use a grid layout, which allows the resizing and rearrangement of specific elements to adjust to screen size. This is why responsive sites generally have a similar stacking pattern, particularly when seen from tablet and phone views. This is beneficial for your school because becoming familiar with the design and navigation of your website will be relatively easy. 

    While unique school website design ideas are sometimes lost with this familiarity, it’s important to remember that when your site visitors access the website remotely, they aren’t there to exercise their tech savvy web skills. They’re there to find information fast. They’re looking for bell schedules, lunch menus, calendars, teacher’s email addresses, and other important information. Don’t worry if your mobile design doesn’t create exciting, new experiences for your visitors. Such simplicity for mobile devices is evidence of the value your school places on considering the community’s needs.

    Having a responsive website design helps you avoid certain navigation problems. Static sites viewed from a mobile device often have usability issues like non-clickable links, tiny text, and navigation too small to read, images that take up the whole screen, and various scrolling problems. A responsive website design allows your school to present itself in a crisp and clean way. In other words, your site can shine in any situation.

    Own the Place

    Your school website’s responsiveness emits confidence to your school’s community. It also means your approach and care increases your chances of being ready to support tomorrow’s technology. Stay current and confident. 

    Since responsive website designs are fluid and flexible, they are more likely to adapt to whatever becomes technologically available in a few years, regardless of size. We all know how quickly technology changes. Avoid being caught with an out-of-date school web design that will no longer meet your audience needs.

    Also, more and more people access the internet from their smartphones. If you’ve checked your Google Analytics in the last few years to see your audience and the types of devices they use to access your school’s website, what have you seen? How many come from mobile devices?

    Did you know that for nearly five years, Google has been giving higher ranking on their search engine to responsive websites? In order to increase enrollment, hire new teachers, and demonstrate all that is good about your school, it’s important to invest time and effort into a responsive school website that will help your school be found.

    Up until just recently, schools actually created a separate mobile website, basically another version of their school website designed separately for mobile devices. Rather than one site to be managed, schools had two. Keeping two websites on two web addresses/URLs updated meant twice as much work. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Google penalized schools for their duplicate content because such content raises a spam flag. The second website actually hurt the school’s Google rankings. Thankfully, responsive school websites do away with that redundancy.  

    Wondering If Your School Needs a Mobile App?

    While apps are great to for specific needs, apps are limited in their design to replace a complete school website. Many schools find that a responsive website design gets the job done and eliminates the need for an app, saving your school time and money. In our opinion, school apps create more work than they are worth. Think about it: between your school website and a school app, it takes twice the work to maintain and update important information in two places. 

    See how parents can create a shortcut to your school website on their smartphones: 

    Make it easier for your students and parents to stay connected by having an effective responsive school website. By making this a priority for your school, you open ways of communication, recognize visitor needs, and help your school’s reputation. Take the time to connect. There are affordable template designs for schools on a tight budget as well as customized options

    Is your school website design resilient? Is it ready to give your visitors the answers they seek in a smooth and professional manner? Take time to evaluate your school website’s effectiveness. Don’t forget; we are here to help! At School Webmasters, we are committed to offering our clients a product to be proud of. Download our Website Redesign Checklists to help guide you along. Visit us at www.schoolwebmasters.com, or call us at 602-750-4556. 

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    How to Turn Your Entire Staff into a School News Army
    2020-02-25
    two female teachers looking at a cell phone and smiling

    When it comes to managing their own websites, the most common complaint we hear from schools is that they struggle to get content from staff to keep their sites current, informative, and engaging. 

    Are you in the same boat?

    You know great things are happening at your school, but if your website is an example of what your school is like, is the perception far less positive? There are many reasons why this challenge plagues the vast majority of K–12 schools. Let’s review a few common reasons and look at solutions to rectify the situation.

    That’s not my job, man!

    Yep, that is true. Everyone at your school was hired for a specific job, and it is likely that knowing and applying website best practices isn’t one of them. When you are wearing multiple hats and your days are full of mission-critical responsibilities, taking on yet another job isn’t likely to have a distinguished outcome. So, failing to recognize upfront that if you don’t make it rewarding to engage staff and keep information flowing so your communication channels (like the website and social media) are worthy of attention, then your efforts are doomed. 

    So, plan to succeed instead. Here are a few tips to make sharing not only expected but rewarding to those who participate.

    Show me, don't tell me written on chalkboard

    Share examples

    Find or create examples of the quality and style of content you’d like to see on your school website and in your social media posts. These examples should model your communication goals whenever possible. Your staff may not have any idea what the expectations are or how important this type of content is to your school goals.

    For example, let’s say one of your school’s goals is to “provide an environment for students and teachers that cultivates a shared love of learning by supporting creativity and inspiration.” 

    Your objective is to seek out examples of programs, experiences, and successes that provide evidence of your goal’s achievement. 

    Your goal is to show your customers (typically parents) that you are walking the talk and to provide your staff members examples of how to do it so they will also participate. Consider the following possibilities:

    • News article, including photos, focused on the creativity evidenced by students at the annual science fair 
    • Quotes from enthused students about their experience—shared on social media and linked back to the articles and photos 
    • Video of what takes place in the classroom that prepares the students to participate or of an interview with science fair winners about what they learned from the experience and how they will use the knowledge in the future

    You get the idea, right? Here is a cute example of a recent news article we wrote and posted on one of our schools’ news pages and social media about a new “staff” member.

    room of staff with arms raised enthusiastically

    Create a process to make participation easy

    So, now that you’ve gathered and publicized a few good examples, you need to have a process that makes participation easy and clear for your staff. Here are a few ideas to consider:

    • Create a schedule for your staff so they are assigned a “story” or topic once a year. They can select the story or topic, but they will know what is expected in advance and can plan accordingly (or be on the lookout for a great one). Be sure to consider each grade level, subject level, and department. Sometimes the best stories come from the bus drivers, janitors, and food service folks. 
    • Make it convenient for staff to submit their story or idea for consideration and inclusion. This could be an online form they fill out (available only to the staff through a secure intranet or even a public form from the website where staff members know they can submit and invite alumni to participate as well). Make sure they know what types of content you are looking for, like photos, video, written details, and where and how to send the information. If you have one contact person to receive the info, make sure everyone knows who that person is.
    • Identify your talent. If you have a writer on staff, or a wanna-be writer, who is willing to help others polish up their story for publication, let your staff know. Sometimes there are great experiences to share, but people hesitate to put it out there just because they fear the blank page or lack confidence about their writing skills. A bit of help from a willing wordsmith could get the stories out there and make them memorable.

    Set expectations and standards

    The second most common complaint we hear from schools (after not getting enough great content from staff for their websites) is how the content they do have looks on their websites. This is a training issue and one that we often overlook. It doesn’t have to be difficult with a bit of prior planning.

    The bar should indeed be quite high for most school’s websites. You are educators, so it is expected that there should be nary a misspelling or grammar issue. Few typos. Never a tone of condescension. Your content should be accurate and inviting. 

    However, when you have lots of people editing your website directly on a CMS system, there are many opportunities to mess up if everyone isn’t trained on the technical “best practices” of website management. 

    We cover these topics extensively (some might say ad nauseam) on our blog, our website, and our eBooks. Still, you must provide consistency and professionalism to avoid being judged harshly by the very folks you are trying to impress.

    • Consistent style. This includes guidelines for grammar, spelling, capitalization, tone, colors, whitespace, font choice, photo optimization, naming conventions, and more. We highly recommend developing a school-wide style guide for both design elements and content, so everyone is aware and is on the same page. For example, we’re big advocates of the Oxford comma, so we use it on all of our school sites to maintain consistency in comma usage (it’s part of our corporate style guide). Your school might have its own pet peeves—so, select the rules you want to follow, and then get everyone on the same page to assure a professional image. Your staff should use your style guide across all forms of communication, from your website and social media to emails, marketing, and blogs.
    • Accessibility for all. Your content must be accessible (by law) to those with disabilities, and since nearly 20% of us have some form of disability, it just makes sense to be sure everyone has access to the information on your site. Some standards must be applied, including navigation without the use of a mouse, color contrast compliance, font scalability, alt text for images, and closed captions for video. Even the PDF documents you link to must be accessible (meaning they can be read with a screen reader). So, training must be done and reviewed every year. Once anyone who touches the website understands the requirements, it isn’t hard to maintain. Still, you must plan for it and be sure everyone receives website accessibility training (including secretaries and staff who create the documents you link to on the site). Check out our accessibility training options as well, which is only $249 per year for ALL your staff.
    • Educate the educators. For both of the previous areas mentioned, you’ll need to provide training and ongoing reminders. In addition to providing training for those who “touch” the website, which would include style guide expectations, website accessibility, and your CMS software, also consider sending out reminders to all your staff about the important areas of communications focus. These could include tips on how to look for interesting stories (ideas, examples, goals), encouragement to submit content, or reviewing department pages for accuracy. We do this monthly for our schools by sending them a video or email with ideas for great content, how to effectively use their news page or their calendar, and other relevant areas that remind them to send us the good stuff!
    staff member shaking hands in appreciation

    Recognize and reinforce

    What we are talking about is creating a culture at your school where everyone is on the lookout for great things happening all around them, or interesting things, or fun things, or just an engaging way to share a glimpse of what it’s like to be a part of your school. You want to reward the types of behaviors that make this happen.

    Effective communication begins with gathering evidence for the outcomes and values your school offers—at least if you hope to get those parents as advocates and attract the students and staff you want. 

    So, don’t overlook the value of recognition and appreciation in driving the behaviors you want to encourage. From improving customer service to building a communication valued culture, recognition and appreciation carry a power punch of effectiveness. They are low-cost and high-return strategies to drive positive cultural values. Recognition means acknowledging specific accomplishments before their peers. Appreciation means expressing gratitude for their actions. Here are a few tips to encourage and build a dynamic and consistent communication flow:

    • Include everyone. Give all employees (and even students) the chance to participate and be recognized for their contributions. You will recognize the various participants differently, of course, depending on their role, but open up the floodgates to include everyone with news and information that can expand your communications.
    • Make it individualized. We humans enjoy appreciation for our efforts and contributions. But, we might enjoy that recognition in different ways. Some of us bask in the glory of public recognition, and others prefer to remain behind the scenes and would be horrified by any such basking. So, as a smart manager, you’ll want to consider the individual’s preferences before coming up with an across-the-board recognition process for the behaviors you want to encourage. For the introvert who submits good content for the website and social media, a handwritten note and a pat on the back might be a valued recognition, while the extravert would enjoy a shout-out about it at the next staff meeting. 
    • Timely recognition. The recognition for positive participation needs to be as soon as possible after the submission. Don’t give out awards at the end-of-the-year board meeting, but react as you go. If you want to see comprehensive and continued staff participation, give immediate feedback. Not only are you less likely to remember who contributed and in what way six months later, but the staff member won’t see that the effort was valued when it was given. So, provide frequent, specific reinforcement for the behaviors you want to encourage.

    Take a look at what you have in place (or put something in place) to recognize and appreciate those who find and share the types of information that will support best practices for your communication efforts, especially your website and social media. Make it your top priority to gather the stories and information your website visitors or social media followers are looking for. You are their primary resource, after all. Make a visit to your website or social media platforms worth their time, and they will return again and again. They will learn to trust your school as a reliable resource (and not the rumor they heard from a neighbor or from some curmudgeon on their social media feed).

    More tips for effect school storytelling? Check out these blog articles:

    How to tell your school’s stories

    Celebrating students’ successes in schools

    Your most powerful school marketing tool

    What makes an effective school website?


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