Education Transformation: Virtual Panel Recap

While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of life, one of the most affected areas has been the field of education. With schools turning to virtual options, parents, students and teachers have had to adapt to virtual learning during a year that has been filled with many unprecedented changes to daily life.

We had the privilege of hosting a virtual panel to discuss some of these changes with panelists Judy Evola, APR, Director of Community Relations and Marketing at Walled Lake Schools; Jeanne Nicol, APR, Director of Public Relations at Macomb Community College; and Chrystal Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of Communications and Marketing at Detroit Public Schools. The panel was moderated by Dr. Shelly Najor, Director of the Undergraduate Public Relations Program at Wayne State University.

What We Learned

While PR and communications can sometimes require work outside of normal business hours, the shift to remote learning has made communications in the field of education virtually 24/7.

“While everyone is virtual, it has allowed more people to become engaged, more often and more frequently,” said Wilson. “So, we’ve had to be extremely flexible and increase our collaboration. News is happening all day, every day as we communicate with our key stakeholders. We’ve had to look at situations differently and carefully address the needs of our different audiences.”

Addressing the needs of stakeholders has affected everything from teaching to graduation ceremonies, Evola said.

“Literally, every aspect of our communication has been impacted by the pandemic,” said Evola. “I can think back to last March, immediately distributing 5,000 Chromebooks to students, the food programs that have been put in overdrive, hosting three drive-in style graduations last June, and much more. We are pulling out all stops to continue to communicate, to honor students, to respect what parents want and at the same time, to work internally to ensure safety.”

In a year filled with so much uncertainty, it has been more important than ever to communicate with empathy. This has been true not only in K-12 education, but also at the college level.

“Trying to understand people’s situations is so important, from frontline workers, to our students who may have lost their jobs, to other students who may not have Wi-Fi at home and are trying to figure out how they are going to continue with school,” Nichol said. “When we start with empathy, our decision making and the way we communicate becomes a little bit different. It’s important to let people know that we’re always going to make decisions based on their health and safety, and helping them move forward.”

Balance has been and continues to be a critical part of communicating during the pandemic. The panelists also touched on the need to be sure that internal stakeholders have the most up-to-date and accurate information available. This can be a challenge when information is changing rapidly and comes from multiple channels. While finding the most effective ways to reach and serve stakeholders during the pandemic has been a moving target, those in the education space have benefited from sharing information with each other, Evola added.

“This is truly a time of sharing,” said Evola. “The pandemic has really caused us to lean in and share information around the globe – within our counties, within our state and within our country.”

Jeff Adkins is a public relations specialist with Henry Ford Health System and a Detroit PRSA board member/programming committee chair.

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