Communication Breakdown

do better

Today was an interesting day.

For the past month, I’ve been back to teaching high school again after my departure from the classroom back in May 2016. It’s been a (mostly) good month. It’s challenging to start teaching in February, after my students’ original, very-well-liked teacher moved to another town. But I’d like to think I’m making it work. I’m teaching 10th grade English and Critical Thinking. Anyhow, back to what happened today.

It’s a Monday. Two weeks before spring break begins. That means, as every teacher knows, it’s getting difficult to get everyone to focus. Here in Nashville, we were expecting some significant weather later today – heavy rain, thunderstorms, possible tornadoes, and hail… serious stuff.

And according to the weather reports, all this bad weather was supposed to hit around 1-5 PM this afternoon. Which would have been school dismissal time, followed by the typically hellish evening commute all over Nashville. It would have been a mess.

Now, as it turns out, that terrible weather didn’t actually hit at that time. As I’m typing this, it’s 6:31 PM, and we’re still waiting…

But hey, you can’t always count on the weather doing what it was predicted to do. And so, that’s why earlier today, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) made the decision to dismiss school early.

I think this was a good idea. I mean, the weather reports were serious enough to warrant concern for our students on their way home. So I totally understand the decision to dismiss early.

However, how the situation was handled is the problem. The BIG problem.

ANATOMY OF A COMMUNICATION MISHAP

Let me begin with last night’s callout and email. At 7:40 PM, I – along with all MNPS parents and employees who have their correct phone number on file with the district – received a call stating that the district was paying close attention to the weather on Monday, but at this time, the district was planning on operating on normal hours.

I didn’t think anything of it other than Monday would be a regular school day.

Then, this morning, I’m in the 2nd period of the day, which is Critical Thinking, where we are finishing up a presentation and discussion on fake news and how to spot it. We’ve been learning all about media literacy in that class. Around 9:50 AM or so, our campus assistant comes in my room to quietly let me know we would be letting school out early at 10:30 AM. He knew this for a fact because he coordinates all the school bus arrivals and departures each day – and apparently we have about 29 different bus routes at my school!

I had not received any official communication from the district at this point. And our campus assistant wasn’t that quiet; my students heard his announcement and quickly got excited about it. So I turned it into a mini lesson on how news stories are created.

I told my students that here we have a news source – the campus assistant – telling us some important news. If we were going to write a news report about this, would this one source be enough? Is he a credible source? Where could we get another credible source to back up what he told us? After all, we had just been discussing what fake news is and how to debunk it, so here was an opportunity to put what we learned into action by verifying the truth.

My students said we could check the district website, Twitter, Facebook, etc., so we started checking it out. I told them to get their phones out and see if they could find some credible information to back up what we had just been told.

On Twitter, we found a Tweet from 9:55 AM about the schools closing from the district’s official Twitter account. Yay! We found another credible source! We determined this was really happening for real, and my students were now excited that they’d be going home in about 30 minutes.

To be honest, once we confirmed that, it was hard – make that impossible – to get my room full of 26 teenagers to focus on anything else. So I didn’t really try. Many of them were trying to contact parents and making plans. So instead, I went back online to check for more information. That’s when I noticed that the Tweet we had just looked at had been deleted by the district.

By the way, I should point out that I don’t usually have my phone out during the school day (other than at lunch time). And I’m not on social media during work hours (though today was an exception). So the fact that I even saw the district’s Tweets were out of the norm for me on a work day.

Then I went to check my email. Surely the district had sent out an official email detailing the early dismissal for us all. You know, so we could all have accurate information to share with our students. Because that’s important in a situation like this where student safety is the number one concern. RIGHT?

Sounds like a logical thing that should happen in a case like this, right?

But no! There was no email. Nothing at all from the district on what was happening at that moment that affected every single employee and student in the entire district.

It was only the beginning of a total communications disaster.

I detailed the events on Twitter here.

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Here’s the timeline of events from my point of view as a high school teacher and a parent of an elementary school student:

Around 9:50 AM: We hear from the campus assistant that school will be dismissed early at 10:30 AM

9:55 AM: MNPS tweets about the early dismissal. Then the tweet is deleted. I wonder why.

Around 10:00 AM: Our principal announces we will be dismissed at 10:30 AM

10:03 AM: MNPS tweets again announcing the dismissal. It’s the same tweet from 9:55 AM. Go figure.

And by the way, their tweet wasn’t specific as they may have thought it was. It said schools would be dismissing 3.5 hours from their start time. That would have been 10:35 AM for high school, not 10:30 AM. I know, it’s a tiny detail. But really? For the communications department, IT’S THEIR JOB TO COMMUNICATE. And why say 3.5 hours instead of saying the actual dismissal time? Why the extra time calculation for parents to have to figure out? Come on now!

10:10 AM: I start thinking of my own daughter and whether or not she would be able to get her normal ride to her after care program. They have a bus of their own that drops off and picks up approximately 10-15 students. So I try calling the after care program, but the number is busy. They must have been scrambling to make plans. Thankfully, I did reach them later and it all worked out.

10:11 AM: I text my neighborhood mom friends to see if they had heard that all our children would soon be out of school! Surprise! They hadn’t. They start trying to change their afternoon schedules so they can pick up their kids.

At this point, THERE STILL HAS BEEN NO OFFICIAL DISTRICT COMMUNICATION ABOUT THIS ISSUE OTHER THAN THE TWEET. It’s possible they put it on Facebook at this time as well, but I didn’t have time to check. I mean, I could be snarky here and say something like who do they think they are, the President? but I’ll keep going…

10:13 AM: I receive a text message from my daughter’s elementary school stating they would be dismissed at 11:30 AM. They even sent a follow up text at 10:36 AM, clarifying that Fun Co, the school’s after care program, would also be closed and apologizing for the “abrupt timing” of it all. I am so grateful to hear some official news, and think, YES! THIS IS HOW THINGS SHOULD BE DONE!!

By this time, I’m wondering what I am supposed to do once students are dismissed. Am I supposed to stay at work? Do I get to leave? Since I hadn’t confirmed that my daughter’s after care program would be picking her up, I didn’t know if I needed to pick her up by 11:30 AM. I was pretty stressed out about it, to be honest. I can only imagine how other parents across town were feeling.

10:23 AM: I get the official district callout about the early dismissal. It sounds like it is the exact same information contained in the tweet. In other words, they said schools would be dismissed 3.5 hours from their start time.

LET ME PUT THIS A DIFFERENT WAY: If you have a son or daughter in high school, you received a call from the district exactly SEVEN MINUTES before dismissal informing you school was ending early.

What?!?

If you have a son or daughter in pre-K or elementary school, you had about an hour and 7 minutes to completely rearrange your schedule to be there for your children.

School buses were running on their normal routes, just 3.5 hours earlier than usual. I wonder how many little children got on their bus only to find there was no one home?? With only one hour’s notice, what were parents supposed to do if they couldn’t make it in time??

10:30 AM: High schools dismiss students. The buses leave. The school became real quiet real fast. There is an announcement over the PA system for teachers – we are told it is a work day. Our grades need to be finalized in the grading system. Blah blah blah. I don’t know if all teachers stayed or not.

10:35 AM: I get confirmation from my daughter’s after care program that they will be picking up students as usual, though they would be closing early at 3 PM. Whew. I relax a little at my desk, where I am sitting and trying to finish up my grades. I start tweeting.

10:59 AM: My daughter calls me from her classroom to ask what is happening. She sounds a little stressed out. I know she gets a bit scared when I talk about bad weather like tornadoes… she’s only 9, you know. I wonder how many other kids are making phone calls to their parents, trying to figure out what will happen when school is out.

I am so grateful for our teachers and school leaders who handled today’s situation with grace, compassion, empathy, and calm. Clearly, the message we got from the district was not sufficient, but we made the best of it.

Because that’s what teachers do. ❤️

11:09 AM: We get an email – FINALLY!!! – from the district. Only all it says is staff “should treat today’s dismissal the same as an early dismissal for snow” and to check with our site supervisor if we have any questions. I don’t even understand what that means, but thankfully, our principal announces that we can leave if we are done with our work for the day.

11:41 AM: I finish my grades. I am trying to relax from this stressful 90 minutes I’ve just gone through. I’m done tweeting. And I’m getting ready to head home.

12:45 PM: I’m home, in sweatpants, with my daughter. I can finally relax.

As I said from the first tweet, I understand why MNPS decided on an early dismissal. But how they handled it really, really sucked. It was bad. Really bad. I mean, this is the main job of the communications department – to communicate to the public about district news and events. And in an emergency situation, we have got to be able to trust them to communicate in a clear and organized manner that reaches as many people as possible.

But they failed us today.

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A PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR

Communication has long been an issue for MNPS. Perhaps they don’t have the right people in charge? I mean, the district’s public information officer – the public face of the district – was recently on the news discussing how we don’t have enough money for water filters in some of our schools where there is lead in the water. LEAD IN THE WATER. And we can’t pay for filters?! She came across as callous and tone deaf.

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is frustrating. I’m left with a bunch of questions…

Are there not communication protocols in place for this kind of event? Shouldn’t there be at least one official district email for all employees in a situation like this to prevent the spread of misinformation? As soon as a decision is made like today’s early dismissal, shouldn’t there be an immediate callout AND email to parents and teachers with all the necessary and specific information needed? Shouldn’t every avenue of communication be pursued at the moment the decision is made – instead of just one tweet??

I mean, seriously, are we supposed to rely solely on Twitter for official district announcements now? I don’t think so.

These questions I’ve raised are basic common sense. But maybe these communication problems are indicative of the bigger problems within MNPS. Who knows?

So come on, MNPS Communication Department, DO BETTER. PLEASE.

Now I’m going to make pancakes for dinner. Because it’s been that kind of day.

pancakes

Oh.

One more thing.

I may have talked about all this with News Channel 5… here’s the link.

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