Coronavirus: Keeping all stakeholders informed

Stay calm, be cautious, provide clarity and plan conscientiously—all to point the community in the right direction
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut.
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut.

For the past couple of weeks, school system leaders across our nation have been searching for information, direction and support in addressing the challenges that the coronavirus (COVID-19) poses to their schools, staff and the students they are trusted with educating in safe, supportive learning environments.

So what can district leaders do during such uncertain times, where the situation is fluid and information is coming at them from government leaders, health officials, parents, staff, media outlets and even students?

At Meriden Public Schools—a small urban district serving over 8,500 diverse learners in Connecticut and about two hours from Boston and New York—we are committed to staying calm, being cautious, providing clarity and planning conscientiously. The coronavirus prompted our schools to close March 13.

Read: States shutting down all schools to slow coronavirus

Taking a team approach

With constant news coverage of the coronavirus and worst-case scenarios grabbing headlines, we remained calm and committed to providing factual information in a timely manner. Regular leadership meetings were held with key stakeholders, including city leaders and local health officials. A team approach, led by our health experts, ensured that decisions would be made with caution and clarity.

With so many different opinions and much misinformation, district leaders decided that they would use their notification system to ensure that all district messages were clear, concise and consistent among all stakeholders. Messages to staff, students and families were provided with complete honesty.

Read: Coronavirus: LA schools open community resource centers

Sharing information communitywide

The typical message acknowledged that this is a fluid situation and the decisions we are making today are based on the latest information available. Constituent groups were kept informed and all were receiving the same information—at the same time. This approach helped minimize confusion and disruptive social media posts.

The situation remains fluid and times are uncertain, but our families, students and staff can be certain that we will remain calm, cautious, clear and conscientious.

So what did we share with our constituent groups?

  1. Cleaning efforts: All schools were utilizing a powerful disinfectant that was approved as a product to fight COVID-19. Custodial and maintenance staff were providing additional cleaning services on all high-touch areas in all school facilities.
  2. Student learning: Learning packets and online learning options were shared with all students and families as the district completed their distance-learning plan. This distance-learning plan ensures that all students learn in the safety of their own homes while school is out of session.
  3. Continuation of essential services: As a district with over 77% of our students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and one that provides universal free breakfast and lunch for all, closing our schools was not only a disruption to learning, but also to the general welfare of our students. Many of our parents were also facing job instability and limited childcare options. The district could not stand by idly; it was essential that our meal program be up and running quickly.

    Read: How schools can balance academic integrity with student emotional wellness during extended school closures

  4. Staff work schedules: All employees will continue to support student success as distance learning has been implemented. All employees will receive their full compensation as they receive dynamic work expectations to meet our students’ needs in this digital learning environment. Food service staff are providing lunch and breakfast for all children age 18 and younger at eight sites throughout the city. Residents can visit one of these sites to pick up lunch and breakfast for the next morning. This process eliminated the need for multiple meal pickups and kept staff in line with social distancing recommendations. Crossing guards help maintain safe and orderly walking paths at our food distribution sites.

The situation remains fluid and times are uncertain, but our families, students and staff can be certain that we will remain calm, cautious, clear and conscientious.

While we cannot control the coronavirus, we shared resources with our families and encouraged them to have conversations with their children. All students need time to share their thoughts, express their feelings, voice their concerns and learn from challenging times. That is what we, as educators, do every day.

Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut, co-chair of the Connecticut Association of Urban Superintendents and first vice president of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

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