ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
by Jim Blaney
Jim Blaney is director of school and community relations at St. Charles CUSD 303.
Of all the media that might cover an event in our school district, Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” would be one of the last I would have expected.
But it happened. It was the finale of a norovirus outbreak in one of our schools.
On January 7, our administration learned that 10 of the 14 members of the St. Charles East High School boys’ varsity basketball team were ill with stomach virus symptoms. The team was supposed to play that evening, and we had to postpone the game.
Because it was a Saturday and students weren’t in school, we needed an idea of how many of the 2,500 St. Charles East students were ill. Our administration worked with the principal, who sent an email message to par- ents about the game postponement, asking parents to reply and let him know if their kids were ill. He also asked if they could describe the symptoms of the illness.
By the time classes resumed on Monday, we knew about one-third of the students were ill. By mid-morning, there were 800 students absent. The number went over 1,000 by the end of the day. We cancelled classes for Tuesday and Wednesday and thoroughly cleaned the building. Classes resumed on Thursday.
We made the national “news” debut the following Saturday night, when SNL’s Colin Jost poked some good-natured fun at us by asking what else could be expected from a school whose mascot is “the warm shrimp cock-tails.” For the record, East High School is the Fighting Saints!
From a communications standpoint, there was a lot to cover, but we never really felt that we were in crisis. A lot of that is due to the parents of our students. They never panicked. In fact, they helped immensely by sharing in-formation about their kids over the weekend. I think the helpful response from parents was due to the initial principal’s message, which went out within 90 minutes of our learning about the basketball team. The principal works very hard at his everyday relationship with the parents of his students. They trust him and it showed.
In the aftermath of all this, I’ve been asked by colleagues and friends about the most important thing at our dis-posal in dealing with what is now referred to by our students as “Quarantine ’17.”
My answer is the relationships we’ve developed in our district, in the media, and in our community — not only since I was hired eight years ago, but even in my prior jobs.
At the top of the list is an informal group called the Kane County Public Relations Council. Once each quarter, the public information officers from a wide range of county public agencies get together and brown bag our lunch. We tell stories, complain about our press coverage, and shake our heads at some of the strange things that happen. Most importantly, we get to know each other.
My counterpart at the county health department and I had worked on projects together prior to the norovirus outbreak. Being able to say we were working with the county health department to assess the situation and to have their guidance was an immense help.
When you have half of the students absent from a school, you’re going to attract the press. Once we announced we were closing the school on Monday night, we got calls from the Chicago television reporters. They wanted someone to answer some questions and get video of our custodial staff cleaning the schools. Normally, our su-perintendent does these press conferences, but because we had a board meeting that night, I was the guy.
As we were waiting for all the crews to arrive, I was chatting with one of the photographers and found out we had worked together years ago on some live sports productions. I should note I always capture video of when we have a press conference and I’ll explain why in a moment. Because I was working by myself, I asked the photographer if he could frame my shot and start my camera when I started the press conference and he said, “No problem.”
The reason for capturing video of press conferences we have in crisis situations, and then posting the press con- ference on the website, is because it allows your community to see the interview unedited. Also, when the radio stations start calling, you don’t have to do the interviews again; they can pull the sound bites off your website and the audio quality is outstanding.
Then it was time to monitor Facebook and email to check the buzz in the community. I addressed direct ques-tions and misconceptions on Facebook and called parents who emailed with questions. A phone call is more personal and it helps build bridges. As I watched the Facebook posts that week, I saw the names of parents I had spoken to in the past speaking positively of our district.
I still consider myself new to school communications. I am amazed by the things my counterparts do every day. But if I could be so bold as to offer advice, I would suggest taking time to get to know your fellow PIOs in city and county government, park district, library, and state’s attorney’s office, along with the elected officials and business leaders in your district. Most importantly, talk to as many parents of students as you can.
When the crisis hits, it’s too late to build bridges. They need to already be in place.
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