Kelly E. Middleton
Public School Customer Service During a Pandemic
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
"A leader is a dealer in hope." -- Napoleon Bonaparte
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has impacted public education immensely. Those of us whose job it is to run schools and districts have had to react quickly and make many novel decisions that affect all our customers: students, families, school staff and the community. Whether your school or district remains open or has closed, your leadership will be the knife edge on which your customers’ experience balances. The right responses will create placated customers who will be more than happy to send their children back to school; the wrong ones will cause them to criticize and the outcome could create supporters or detractors for years to come. They may even choose another schooling option entirely.
It all starts with leadership. In times of crisis, leadership needs to stand up and be visible; it needs to "flow like a waterfall" from the top, as J.D. Power says. Leaders need to show their students, families, employees and the community that they are confident, hopeful and willing to stand on the front lines like a state governor or president. The superintendent and principals must be leading their staffs. Some people will panic, so you need to be a dealer in hope. Admiral James Stockdale, a former POW in Vietnam, says in order to survive a crisis, one needs to confront the brutal facts with optimism.That means not ignoring the harsh reality, but acknowledging it, then showing confidence that everyone will get through this together, under your leadership. This is known as The Stockdale Paradox.
Communication and Quick Response
So how should leaders lead in times of crisis, like this current pandemic? The most important factors to consider are our communication and response. I mentioned the importance of confidence to superintendents and principals. Using that confidence, they should communicate every day, perhaps at a set time, to reassure the public that they've got a plan and remind them what steps they're taking to carry out that plan. Remember, when the eagles are silent, the parakeets chatter. In other words, people need to hear the voices of leaders to keep the other voices from steering the narrative. If you're not steering the narrative and someone else is, you cannot be a dealer in hope.
Communication starts with leaders, but extends to the messages staff share about the school, so be sure to brief every employee on what they should and should not say. Above all, be consistent with your message and utilize every available communication channel: daily phone calls (we use the One Call system), emails, social media. Try to channel your inner Franklin D. Roosevelt, as he addressed the country during the Great Depression in his Fireside Chats.
If our customers see leaders calm, well-organized, under control and with a plan, they are less likely to panic and more likely to trust leadership. They also tend to be more understanding of our missteps. I suggest leaders lay out priorities and relay those through the entire staff. When the governor of Kentucky gave superintendents 72 hours to prepare to send students home, communication became vital for district and school leaders. We decided we had to communicate to our internal staff of teachers and hourly employees first and then practice a response plan to educate each student from his or her home. We decided we had to address food and technology (including internet access) first.
As superintendent of a district that has about 90% free or reduced meal students, one of our top priorities was making sure they all got fed while school was shut down. Many of our students rely on our school for most or all of their meals, and receive little food at home.
While we appreciated the 72 hour notice from our governor, who continues to show great leadership, it's a pretty big operation to radically change an entire school system. Kentucky was one of the first states in the country to close all public schools, so we had to act quickly. We decided to keep on our regular cafeteria staff to cook meals and modified our process so they got all packaged up for students, similar to restaurants like Applebees began doing many years back. Allowing families to pull up to the school, pick up food and then drive home to eat allowed us to continue to serve nutritious food to our students while ensuring that our hourly cafeteria workers (and all the staff needed to support running the cafeteria) could continue to work and get paid.
Our second quick response priority was internet access. All our students K-8 have iPads and our 9-12 students have laptops that they can take home to complete assignments. We instructed our teachers to create online lesson plans so students can continue their work. I like to say, "Leaders need to see problems before they happen." In this situation, we knew internet would be a problem for some students to access the teachers' online lessons. So, we made sure that our tech people were able to go to homes and help students who did not have internet at home could get online through a mobile hotspot app or by free internet being supplied by various companies.
In my book Competing for Kids: 21 Customer Service Concepts Public Schools Can Use to Retain and Attract Students I talk about how the best customer service leaders walk in the shoes of the customer. That means they get up out of their offices and experience what students and families experience. One principal decided to walk in the shoes of his customers in order to make sure everything went smoothly for our students to pick up meals. Once everything was in place to start letting families come to pick up food, he went outside to run through the procedure himself. He quickly realized that because we were using the back entrance of the school as the pickup point (it was the only spot with direct access to the kitchen), parents may not know exactly where to go. The principal made up a large sign that pointed toward the back of the school then to the door to enter to pick up food and finally to the service bell (used for deliveries) they would ring in order to talk to staff to send out a meal.
Had the principal not taken the extra time to check their process, they would have had a whole lot of confused, angry (hangry?) families walking around lost, in the parking lot, creating a whole new problem he would not have had time to fix.
Don't Chase Perfection
Earlier I mentioned The Stockdale Paradox about confronting reality with optimism. Similarly, we need to remind ourselves that our process is novel and well outside our typical job description. Don't get bogged down in perfectionism. In times like this, you cannot worry about being perfect. If you are preoccupied with getting everything right, you won’t get anything done. For example: you realize that some students who are expected to continue school through remote learning do not have access to the internet. If you wait until everyone’s set up, you have already missed several days or even a week of potential learning for some students. In the same way, if, upon your school closing, you wait to announce the availability of meals to students until you ensure you have hot meals for all, you may subject many more students to hunger than if you'd served whatever hot or cold meals you had available immediately.
React fast with what resources you have. It’s better than nothing. Don’t let your responses get stuck in committees. Act first, adjust and figure out problems as you go. Don’t get bogged down in red tape or bureaucracy; remember, it’s not about parties, pettiness, agendas or school board politics. If handled correctly, our staff, our schools, our states and our nation will come together in a way that no one thought possible and thus together we end up a lot stronger when the crisis is over. Conveying this message of hope and acting quickly, clearly and confidently are our best tools in fighting the challenges we face as school leaders in a time of crisis.