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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
When, how and why it matters
Communicating during and after a crisis
By Ed Trimis | November | December 2021
We came back three times. And I mean came back in every sense of the word. Back from tragedy. Back from turmoil. And back from a crisis.
I am finishing my fifth year as principal of a small public arts school in South Gate, part of LAUSD’s Public School Choice model and a Zone of Choice school where local students may choose where they go to high school. We are a very small school (under 500 students) but share a larger campus with two other schools which allow for a competitive sports program, big events such as Homecoming and Prom and a diverse choice for families of themed schools within the complex.
In the last two and a half years, all of my skills in communication, crisis management and building community have been put to the test. From one crisis to another, we managed to hold fast as a school community, staff, teachers, students and families, through some difficult challenges. I think what we did as a team, what I tried to do as a school leader and the response of our community made all the difference. Now, what may have broken us, has merely made us stronger. Our enrollment is steady, our staff is happy, and our students and parents can’t say enough about how much they love our school. We have started celebrating a 10-year anniversary with several events and new classes and programs planned for the 2021-22 school year.
When: One
One of the founding faculty members of our school, our wonderful video production, photography and health teacher suddenly passed away at the end of the 2018-19 school year. Nick Adolfo was beloved by all, gave back in many ways to our school and was always pushing his teaching to new heights embracing new ideas and implementing them in his classes every chance he got. It happened suddenly, on a Saturday as he was on his way to a training. After a day of calls from the district, I worked with central office support to design a plan for Monday morning. After a recommendation to have all of the teachers meet before school and then send them to class to share the sad news with their students, I pushed back and insisted I meet with the teachers at the start of the day so they could all get the message at the same time and we could provide much-needed counseling and support for the teachers before sending them to class (some of the teachers and staff were not able to arrive at school early). The district crisis intervention team and counselors were at school to support. We arranged a special counseling session for the advanced level students who the teacher knew the best and provided a safe space for them to talk, share their emotions, and grieve. We gave the teachers all the time they needed and held the students in the multi-purpose room/auditorium while the teachers and staff met. I explained to the teachers that, as difficult as this was, it was important that they were strong for their students who will be hurting. I offered coverage for anyone who needed it and counselors were available for both students and teachers and staff.
I intentionally did not post anything on social media, but posted a message on our website. The advanced students immediately started creating a tribute video for Adolfo that was played at school events and eventually posted online. I attended the services with my assistant principal. I started planning a reconfiguring of one of the rooms to design it for video production, including the space and permanent green screen Mr. Adolfo never had. We hired another video teacher and kept the program at the school. We came through to the other side.
When: Two
As the next year began, there were some concerns for the teachers about different district-wide issues voiced by the teachers’ union leadership. As the semester continued, it seemed like a work stoppage was inevitable and a strike vote was called. The teachers walked out after the new semester started in January. It was the first major teacher strike of this kind in our district for several years. School administrators were doing their best to cover classes with administrators or the few substitutes that were available. A large number of students did not come to school.
We changed our schedule. We created work packets, allowed the students to take classes and review sessions online and included a time for physical activity every day. We did our best to encourage students to come to school, and, while they were at school, kept instruction in place. Our administrative team tried to keep a positive relationship with the teachers through this difficult time. I would post updates on our school social media accounts and webpage, letting families know what was happening at school, how many students attended and any district updates I may have had. I continued to send out weekly phone calls/podcasts that were also posted on our school website and social media (I had done this at my schools since I became a principal in 2006).
After one of the Facebook posts, a parent made this comment: “I heard all you are doing is watching movies all day and students aren’t learning anything. Why should I send my kid to school for that?” I replied, “Thanks for the comment. Learning every day including online review and instruction, physical activity and more.” The parent replied, “Wow, really? Sorry, I didn’t know.” I then asked the parent if they think parents would be interested in my posting video updates. He said “yes” and from that point, I started posting videos, several a week, and sometimes daily. In every video we made a point of saying that we love our teachers, we miss our teachers and we can’t wait until they return, and in every video, I said students need to be at school and they are learning when they are at school.
Of the three schools on our campus, we had the highest number of students attending each day, even though we were the smallest school. When the strike was over, I met with the teachers before they went back to their classrooms. I said to them that we needed to talk and it was not just “business as usual”. It was a difficult time for them, losing income, not seeing their students and dealing with the angst and sometimes flare-ups that occur in this type of situation. Everyone had the opportunity to talk. Everyone was glad to be back at school, and while it was difficult, felt more united as a staff and felt supported by our administrative team. They were all grateful to be part of our school family. We came through to the other side.
When: Three
After March 13, 2020, our lives changed and we faced our third big crisis at school. I got the heads up on Friday (the 13th), that we may be out for a few weeks because of the pandemic and to issue as many Chromebooks as we had available to students. Two weeks turned into four, into months, and now, over a year and some months later, we are finally on the road to return to “normal” in schools. We did our best to make online learning work.
The videos I had started making the year before became a regular practice. I started an “online school” website to complement our regular website (with detailed, time-sensitive information). The software iMovie was my new friend and almost every school event was made into an iMovie video posted on YouTube and our websites and social media. We had exchanges between performing groups on Zoom, we had guest speakers present to classes on Zoom, we made music videos and had virtual concerts on Zoom and we conducted interviews and ran all of our school operations online. I even created a “COVID19 Video” with photos synced to an original song I composed and produced. “We’re Make It Through” was used at the end of most of the weekly podcasts through the end of the 2020-21 school year.
I explained to the teachers that, as difficult as this was, it was important that they were strong for their students who will be hurting.
I hired five new teachers this last year who never met their students in person until recently (if at all). I continued the weekly calls/podcasts and scaled back the video updates, though still posted them as needed. I got vaccinated and posted my “why I got vaccinated” video. We collaborated with three other schools and created a four-jazz choir music video just before the holidays (“What A Wonderful World”), which was publicized by the district and seen over 5,000 times on YouTube. And, now, our teachers are all (mostly) back in their classrooms, some students are coming in a few days a week and we are being allowed to hold in-person graduation (last year was only virtual and drive-through).
To support the teacher’s return to campus, we provided each of them new laptops, polo shirts with our 10th-anniversary patch, a coffee mug, travel bag, baseball cap, water bottle and mouse pad. We also treated them to morning snacks and lunch for both Teachers Appreciation Day and classified staff appreciation day. We took a team picture in our polo shirts to memorialize the beginning of our anniversary celebration and return to campus. In the fall, we will be fully back, students, and teachers. Though we are not all the way there, it does feel that we came through to the other side.
As I reflect on these crises and what we did, how we got through and how we came out stronger, the main tool we used was communication. Communicating updates to families and the community at large, communicating frequently and directly with teachers and school staff and communicating regularly with district staff: communicating how people are feeling, what we are doing, and communicating what the future will look like. We reached out in every way from posts on school social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter), messages on our website and new online school website, phone class, podcasts, videos, e-mails, Remind messages, text messages, What’s App messages, FB and Twitter direct messages, even letters.
Why it matters
I am confident in claiming that though we were physically distant and psychologically impacted, a long way from talking face-to-face, our connection was never broken, and, in some ways, even became stronger. And this connection has enabled us to push the boundaries of the school even further. We are changing our bell schedule, adding new staff and new programs and we continue to increase our enrollment. Our school is a safe place, a welcoming and inclusive campus and a school to watch as instruction student learning outcomes continue to improve. We are together, one team, one mission, one family. A family where communication is not only expected, it is necessary as we continue to raise the bar and continue our mission at Legacy Visual and Performing Arts High School.
COVID19 Videos: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLO3RWgSioiQpKDUj64x9aOgBzyR2ReIdW COVID Update: https://youtu.be/3apCpbV5HbI Senior Awards Spring, 2021: https://youtu.be/R6VlFJ_YwEM Gratitude Video Fall, 2020: https://youtu.be/LGlE4JHJj4U
Ed Trimis is principal at Legacy Visual and Performing Arts High School
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