Emergency Planning for the Coronavirus in K–12 Schools

March 13, 2020 Daren Worcester

A high school student attending an online class during his school's coronavirus closure.

Episode 72 of the Get Connected podcast welcomes Cheryl Fleming, director of communications, marketing, and technology at Sanford School; Hiram Cuevas, director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School; and Jimmy Cudzilo, interim chief information officer at Miami Country Day School, for a roundtable discussion on how their schools are planning for the new coronavirus.

The conversation covers topics such as emergency preparedness plans and policies, methodologies for distance learning in closed-school situations, and the potential impact of long-term closures. Please note that the podcast was recorded on March 5, 2020, and the participants' comments reflect the thinking at that time.

Referenced on the podcast: A Google Drive folder has been set up for schools to share their coronavirus plans as outlined in this EdSurge article.

Visit the Blackbaud K–12 Coronavirus Resources channel for more information.

Transcript (Edited)

Jimmy Cudzilo [Intro]: It's not like a hurricane where you've got a couple of days, you've got forecast models, you've got these national predictions that you can look at. It's a lot of just prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Daren Worcester: Greetings and welcome back to the Blackbaud K–12 Get Connected podcast. I'm Daren Worcester, and in this episode, I'm joined by three thought leaders from the Blackbaud K–12 Advisory Board, who are going to share with us the current state of their schools' emergency preparedness for the coronavirus. Let's kick things off today by having each member of our roundtable discussion introduce themselves. Cheryl, please go first.

Cheryl Fleming: I'm Cheryl Fleming. I'm the director of communications, marketing, and technology at Sanford School in Hockessin, Delaware.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. Hiram, you're up next.

Hiram Cuevas: Hello, everyone. My name is Hiram Cuevas. I'm the director of academic technology at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.

Daren Worcester: And Jimmy, how about yourself?

Jimmy Cudzilo: I'm Jimmy Cudzilo. I'm the interim chief information officer here at Miami Country Day School in Miami, Florida.

Daren Worcester: Great. Thank you all for joining us for this discussion today. I really appreciate it. We've been exchanging a lot of emails. And I think one of the biggest benefits to being on the advisory board—I hope you guys agree—is the email chain that you guys have to share and collaborate with each other. So with this conversation, I wanted to take all those ideas and things that you guys were talking about and bring it to a bigger conversation so that other schools can benefit as well. I think most schools probably already have their emergency preparedness plans and general plan of action that they're looking to revise or work on. But now that the coronavirus has kind of risen to the forefront of concerns, what unique aspects of it are requiring your schools to revisit and perhaps revise your emergency action plans. And Jimmy, why don't we start with you.

Jimmy Cudzilo: We do have an existing emergency operations plan for all these different scenarios, and of course, you never want any of them to have to be acted upon. What we've really found was—we needed to dust that off and take a look at it. And we've realized we had some training opportunities that we need to catch up on. One thing we've discovered is there's a very fine line between how much you want to share out with your communities and how much they want to know. And that's not in writing anywhere.

There's no guidance for, you know, there are some people who want to see everything. They want to know, Okay, well, what are you going to do this day at this time, and with an incident like what we are potentially preparing for, it's not like a hurricane where you've got a couple of days, you've got forecast models, you've got these national predictions that you can look at. It's a lot of just preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. And just be vigilant and watch what's happening. And it's hard to keep the community okay with that.

Daren Worcester: How do you guys walk that fine line between what you say and what you don't say?

Jimmy Cudzilo: So I know we've implemented a communications plan. We have regular communications with our faculty, our trustees, our parents. Today we had our president, head of school, she spoke to our parents' association. We'll be releasing that video internally on one of our resource boards for parents tomorrow, along with our next weekly update to the parent and the general community.

Daren Worcester: Cheryl, I know communications is right in your area of expertise. Do you have a follow up to that?

Cheryl Fleming: We've found that one of the unique things about this is—first off, in our crisis management plan, we do not really have a section that deals with an extended school closure period. So, first and foremost, that's where we had to start doing some of our strategic planning, and then figuring out how we were going to roll out training so that we could keep everything moving should we be affected by an extended school closure.

But to the point you're really asking me about which is communications, we found that using our Pushpage system, we're able to stay in touch with our constituents, and also get that strategic leadership information that's so helpful to us—what information in here is useful? What links are people clicking? Do they feel like we need to be providing more external resources of expertise? We see that what some schools in the area are doing is communicating through their regular newsletters pretty frequently. But we have actually embarked on a campaign to communicate regularly in standalone email messages about the virus.

Daren Worcester: So have you already been sending out messages saying this is what the school is doing, this is what we're monitoring?

Cheryl Fleming: Yes. So, soon after the outbreak began, we had a message out. We tend to be very active on the communication front. So if there's a national tragedy or crisis, or basically anything that would cause worry or concern for our community, we tend to get that out there pretty quickly. So our very first communication was pretty brief. It was, here's what we know, and here's what we're doing. Our second communication was more extensive in terms of talking about actual tactics and strategies. And now we're working on our third communication for families.

Daren Worcester: That sounds great. Hiram, what unique challenges does this concern bring to your school?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, as many people know, St. Christopher's is a brother school to St. Catherine's, so we have the coordinated communication that often has to go out in events. such as these. And so our two communications departments utilize the Pushpage system in order to send a joint message to our families, because we have just over 30 percent of our families attend both schools. And having the same voice essentially for the two schools and sharing the same message and approach, I think is proving to be really valuable so it doesn't look like there's either one school emphasizing a particular strategy versus another.

And I think it was really an opportunity for us to revisit our practices just for basic health issues. Really the basic health issues like flu or bronchitis or anything like that, that a child may be suffering with—you're supposed to be informing the school anyway. So it was a great opportunity to mention items that were already in our handbooks, which I think was a great learning opportunity for our parents. Reminders of when to stay home regarding illness, and it was really just a way to take some of what I am calling some of the hysteria out of what's in the media today regarding the virus and distilling it to a point that's a little bit more digestible for our families—when to stay home while you're reporting your illnesses to the school, and some of the best ways that we can deal with preventing further spread of illness. Once again, you've got things like [norovirus], you've got things like the flu, and some other things that are contagious that are on campus, so we're discussing things like deep cleanings, healthy habits—can you keep yourselves healthy? 

And we also have the challenge that we're about to go on spring break this coming Friday. And so the challenge there is how do you deal with the families that are returning and so there was discussion about within the communication if you're traveling in an area that is potentially infectious, pay attention to what's been labeled within the CDC as to what are some of the warning signs that you should be aware of in terms of your destination.

And then we're proactive in looking at initial mentions of school trips and how we're going to handle school-sponsored trips. We have a couple school trips that are coming up within the month. And the decisions haven't necessarily been made just yet that we're continually reevaluating what's going on based on the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC's recommendations.

And then the last area of focus for us was talking about school operations and how we can minimize disruptions to our students teaching and learning requirements. And oddly enough, right before this, I just had a brief training with our senior admin team on how to use the Zoom video conferencing system so that they could get a sense of some of the challenges associated with jumping to a video conference type of environment in a teaching environment. It poses its own unique challenges as we all know.

Daren Worcester: I'm glad you mentioned your policies on when not to come to school. I presume the default policy is that you have to be fever-free for 24 hours. I know that's what all my kids schools are, is your school having to go back and revisit that policy to take the coronavirus into consideration? Are you developing self-quarantine policies to go with that?

Hiram Cuevas: We haven't put it down on paper just yet, because we're still relying on the information that's coming out from the Virginia Department of Health and the CDC. We have no incidences right now in the city of Richmond that we are aware of. So in terms of developing those policies, I think a lot will depend on how things pan out when we return from spring break. But if we do develop a policy, it will certainly be within the guidelines presented by the CDC. Why recreate the wheel? They certainly are the experts in this.

Daren Worcester: Jimmy, how about at your school if you guys had discussions on that?

Jimmy Cudzilo: So we have and we will continue the 24-hour post fever policy that we've always had. And we've officially requested that families exactly like Hiram said, follow the CDC self-quarantine procedures if they do decide that they're going to travel to one of those level-three countries when they go on spring break. We're a couple of weeks away from spring break here, and we've specifically said that we're not the medical professionals. We're going to take the advice of the CDC, who has the research, and we're going to ask that our community participate as part of the larger community to prevent the further spread. And so we're advising our community to follow that 14-day—if you are visiting one of those level three countries, we're asking our population to follow the 14-day self-quarantine. 

Daren Worcester: There are some school systems out west in Washington and in other areas that have already instituted closings. Hopefully that won't become something that happens across the nation, but with it a distinct possibility, what measures are your schools considering should that scenario arise?

Cheryl Fleming: I'm happy to jump in on that when we are talking about some sort of remote learning program. Fortunately, with the products we have with Blackbaud, we're able to post class assignments, put work up, do online assessments, and we've been discussing what platform would help facilitate communications should remote learning become necessary, and our team is leaning toward using Google Meet.

Hiram Cuevas: Similarly, Daren, we are really fortunate that we do have as many resources available to us through the Blackbaud products and G Suite. And I just engaged in some conversations this morning with Zoom to see about doing some potential synchronous learning using video conferencing. And as I was going through my research with Zoom, I found out that they are LTI compliant, which that all of a sudden, you know, tickled my brain and said, hey, you know what, this is another opportunity to tie something into Blackbaud as well at some point, so I will definitely be researching that a little bit more.

But there are some challenges because there's quite a difference between teaching in a classroom and teaching in an online environment and our folks aren't quite ready yet for that leap. We just had a training session with our senior admin team that worked out pretty well. But you could tell when everybody was starting to have their side conversations, it was a reminder of how challenging it is within an online environment to maintain that classroom management component.

So while there are both synchronous and asynchronous components to your pedagogy, I do think the asynchronous is going to be much, much easier for our faculty We'll be able to continue to do things as if we were out for a snowstorm for several days. But if this was extended, obviously, we need to have some additional tools, and we would hope to use something like Zoom.

Daren Worcester: Are you guys looking to institute some different trainings for your team to get them better prepared?

Hiram Cuevas: So, yes, we are. When we returned from spring break, that Monday there is actually a professional day in place that was already on the calendar. And so we've moved some things around so that we could actually start doing some training to give some exposure to the product and also some opportunities to engage in discussions by department so that they can see how they can leverage the tools within their own specific disciplines.

Cheryl Fleming: Daren, we're doing the same thing similar to the way that we conduct our SIS and LMS training sessions. We are planning to have training by division so that we have teams of trainers in the lower school, team of trainers in middle school, and the team in upper school. And so that those groups that have similar functionality, whether by department or by grade, can all participate in training together.

Daren Worcester: Great. Jimmy, you've had your virtual hand up for a bit. Do you have more to add?

Jimmy Cudzilo: Yeah, so our plan for a hurricane or for a viral contagion outbreak where we have to close includes using our Blackbaud SIS as our central hub. So we'll be posting assignments as usual into all of our class pages and the bulletin boards will all have links to that class' Zoom meeting room. All of our faculty have received refresher training over the past week and we'll continue to offer ongoing support as they sort of dust that tool off. It's one of those tools that we invested in a couple of years ago, and it's easy to get out of practice with it because you don't use it every single day. 

So we did a refresher training this week, and we'll be doing some specifics similar to what Cheryl mentioned for the grade levels—what's appropriate for my twelfth grade isn't going to be appropriate for my first grade or my pre-kindergarten three-year-olds. So there's a lot of conversation around that and how our teachers are going to make that shift from teaching in the classroom, which we've got down, to, okay, well, now I need to teach online.

One of the biggest things that we've been trying to communicate with both our parents and our faculty is that—don't expect your school day in the virtual remote situation to look like a school day now. So there's been a lot of conversations internally of what that exactly would look like. We're still working on that. But I think we have a pretty good grasp. And again, using our Blackbaud solution combined with Zoom, we'll also be offering personal counseling to students one on one through these platforms.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Hiram, do you have a follow up to that?

Hiram Cuevas: Yes, so, I wanted to comment on the appropriate age-level question that was brought up. So we've even gone so far to have initial conversations about access. So our middle and upper school are a one-to-one, bring-your-own laptop model, we're a Chromebook school essentially down in our lower school, but in grades four and five, each boy has access to a laptop, so we're one to one in grades four and five.

So we've even discussed allowing the boys to take those devices. If we know that we're going to be shutting down the school, we would actually check out these devices to all of the boys grades four and five because they are a little bit more advanced developmentally than the lower grades in terms of their use of Chromebooks and the G Suite products along with the LMS that we thought it was necessary to equip them with the tools.

The other was the virtual school day that Jimmy was just referencing, and this was something I mentioned to my head of schools, it's going to be really important that the school really dictates what that school day looks like because we can't allow teachers to say, oh, everybody's gonna now offer their class at nine o'clock, when a boy has six courses to then deal with. We've got to try and schedule that out, and also make sure that St. Catherine's, our sister school, is on that same page in terms of how we approach that school day when we use the virtual learning component.

Cheryl Fleming: Hiram, we're in a similar boat because our upper school, grades nine through 12, are one-to-one Chromebooks. So every student is issued a device whether or not they use it all the time is certainly up to them because some choose to use devices that they bring. In middle school, we are not one to one. But we've had that same conversation that if we're going to be in a remote learning situation, we have to give everybody the opportunity to have access. And having access means letting them take their devices home. So if we do get to that point, that's our plan.

Daren Worcester: How is the breakdown between sort of the divisions going to work? I presume the online video conferencing wouldn't be happening in the lower or the elementary grades. So up here in the northeast, we have what we call blizzard packs, where if schools closed for a day or two, the kids already have a pre-planned pack of what they're going to do for that day. Is the approach something like that for the elementary grades or how are you guys thinking that is going to take place? 

Jimmy Cudzilo: We believe some sense of community is vital for our students to not be so jolted when they come back to campus that we actually do have plans in place all the way down to pre-kindergarten, three, to offer live synchronous sessions on an altered schedule, obviously, and then some instruction that, again, will be synchronous, combined with some recorded lessons from our enrichments and the lower school.

So I wouldn't say that having the video is completely off the table. It's obviously much more of a challenge because then you're relying on a parent or a nanny, or some sort of caretaker to help facilitate that interaction. So all of those live sessions will be recorded and then posted back to the bulletin board for that class. So if as soon a student is unable to make it, or you have three students on all in the same academic division, and they only have one computer at home—so obviously all three students can't join at the same time—that they would have the opportunity to at least go back and view that interaction from earlier in the day.

Daren Worcester: Cheryl mentioned using Google Meet and Hiram you mentioned that you're a Google school but you guys were looking at Zoom. And Jimmy, you mentioned that your school is looking at Zoom. In terms of the actual decision making on which tool you're going to use for video conferencing, why did you steer one direction or the other?

Cheryl Fleming: I was gonna ask that question because I wanted to know how they arrived at Zoom myself. For us, we're a Google Apps school. And so the capability that Google Meet was going to present for us to not only to present live but also to record, and I believe that's correct that you can record the sessions, along with the extension that Google has to activate it now. You can have connections that involves up to 250 connections in a session versus the original 50 that we used to have led us down the path of thinking that Google Meet would be the right choice with us.

Now, I will say from our perspective, too, I don't want to communicate as though everything we are talking about is set in stone for us, because this is a whole new world for us. So we are still doing a lot of exploratory fact-finding, and so forth. So if somebody has additional information that might make it a better option for us to choose Zoom, or something else, we would certainly be open to hearing more about that.

Daren Worcester: Hiram and Jimmy, you guys are the Zoom schools. Any info on you know why you've gone that direction?

Jimmy Cudzilo: So for us at Miami Country Day School, we had a lot of experience using Zoom in a professional meeting environment. And so when we had developed our extended campus closure policy, and we were looking, it was just one of the tools that came to mind. They have educational pricing, so that helped us look at the decision.

While we do have Google Apps in play here, at the time, we felt that Zoom was the platform that would give us what we're looking for. It's got SSO integration, and since my faculty and staff are all used to using the Blackbaud ID integration with our Azure, it's so easy for me to just say, yeah, it's the same username and password you use to get into the Blackbaud site, same to get into your email, same to get into Zoom. One less thing for them to panic and worry about if we are in a situation where we need to execute this plan. And it has cloud recording as well as local recording, which was important for us as well.

Daren Worcester: Good, thank you. Hiram, what about you?

Hiram Cuevas: I originally came at this from in a different direction. Google Meet was really a part of Google Hangouts and for a long time, Google Hangouts was an 18-and-over product that was not part of core services. So I had never really considered it initially. And I started asking questions to other tech directors about where they were headed because we are a Google school as well, and use all of their products.

What we found was it was only recently that they essentially made Google Meet part of core services, which then allows you to use it with the younger grades, and it satisfies COPPA and FERPA. And so keeping all of those things in check, that was actually a win, I think, for moving towards Google Meet. But my experience just in general with Meet and with Hangouts in the past have not been as good as they were with Zoom.

And we've been using Zoom for interviewing potential candidates to St. Christopher's School. And it just seems to be a really solid interface. We haven't had any issues like Jimmy mentioned, it allows you to record both locally or to the cloud. I'm certain that Meet will continue to improve, but their documentation, at least as early as last week, didn't really make it that clear as to whether or not it was going to satisfy some of the data privacy issues that I was worried about. I'm pleased to say that we were finally able to find out, but it took a lot of digging. And it was because the documentation wasn't clear.

And so I really wanted to move in the direction of the platform that I was already familiar with. I love the SSO component. It does give you branded URLs if you wanted to have a branded URL. And the SSO for us is going to be the same as our Blackboard ID because we use the Google authentication. So there were a lot of pluses there.

Daren Worcester: Good. I think that's gonna be really helpful for everyone. Jimmy alluded and spoke a little bit before to how the school's thinking about structuring video for the different levels. I'm curious what all your schools are planning and thinking about regarding the video conferencing? Are students going to be expected to sign online at the same time as their normal course would be? Or are teachers gonna hand out assignments and have office hours? What's the general thinking around that?

Jimmy Cudzilo: So for us, I know that the plan is an adjusted schedule. We don't have that scheduled to share right now. But it will be an adjusted schedule. So we won't run into that situation where all the teachers are trying to teach at nine o'clock in the morning, there will be office hours, and there will be assignments as well. And so we'll be taking attendance just like usual, attendance policies will remain in effect.

We happen to use SchoolPass for absence reporting, and we're going to continue to request that parents report an absence if your student's not going to be able to participate in the online sessions that day that you report an absence. Obviously, the CDC recommendations are to lighten up our requirement to document that. So we're not going to be as strict with that per the CDC recommendations. But that's how we're going to go with it. 

Daren Worcester: Hiram or Cheryl, do either of you have comments there?

Cheryl Fleming: Well, we've been looking at both models you referenced—kind of trying to run the school day the way it typically would run or then looking at online presentations with office hours, and we haven't decided which direction we're going to go for certain if this does come to pass. But our hope would have been, I think where we would like to be, and we will do this I'm pretty certain, we will be taking attendance, students will be expected to check-in, our attendance policies like Jimmy's will still be in place as well.

Daren Worcester: So you've both hit on something that I find very interesting. There is a Google Drive out there. And I'll share links to these resources in the blog post for this. But a school started a Google Drive for other schools to put in their planning around this to kind of share and help other schools out. And a lot of the international schools that have sort of submitted their info there is they're well ahead of the US in having to deal with this. But one of the things that I read in there was a school was using a Google form to track attendance. And you guys have both mentioned absentee reporting—is that your school's approach to it is to have basically people say when they're not there as opposed to say when they are?

Jimmy Cudzilo: I'm actually planning to put adjusted schedules into our school days in Blackbaud so that when my track one happens to me on whatever day it's meeting on that it's actually there—it shows in the student view, it shows in the parent view, they know when they're supposed to be in track one in that Zoom session. And that's where the faculty will take the attendance right there in our SIS. So, I'll just run special days, once we know what those special day schedules will look like, so that we can continue to operate as close to normal as possible for that process for the faculty.

Cheryl Fleming: And that's our plan as well to take attendance within the SIS.

Hiram Cuevas: And Daren, I'm kind of jealous of Jimmy's approach because if he's having his parents already leveraging SchoolPass, which happens to be a Blackbaud ecosystem partner, that's a great way to know ahead of time whether or not a student is going to be present for an altered schedule.

Daren Worcester: The other question that seems to have come up around the video conferencing that was on our advisor chain—one of the advisors had suggested that their school is going to recommend that teachers don't do one-on-one video conferencing with students as that to them is akin to the teacher being alone with a student in a room behind a closed door. So for safety precautions that was their recommendation. Is this something that's been discussed at any of your schools?

Jimmy Cudzilo: Our recommendations right now are similar to how the teacher would have a one-on-one session with a student in their classroom that they would leave the door open to the hallway. You preferably wouldn't have that one on one without someone nearby. They record that session. All those interactions should be happening on the Zoom platform is what we're requesting, and then that those sessions be recorded into the cloud just to document the entire interaction.

Hiram Cuevas: And I think, Daren, perhaps one of the things that should always be in the back of any school's minds is to consult the school's attorney to determine if there are any possible ways in which the one on one could place risk on the school.

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. That's a great point, Hiram. So you've all mentioned using Blackbaud's tools to facilitate learning and using partners that are in the ecosystem, which is wonderful. Are there any other ways that you're thinking about using the tools creatively or differently in a closed school situation?

Jimmy Cudzilo: So we'll be using resource boards that are targeted to our parent population, as well as resource boards specifically for faculty and staff that have those communications. We'll be launching that Parent Resource Board tomorrow, I believe, and we'll have the complete line of all of our communications. Similar to Cheryl, we've had two communications via Pushpage to parents so far, and we've got a third one that's scheduled to come out tomorrow.

Cheryl Fleming: Ours is tomorrow too!

Jimmy Cudzilo: Yeah! We'll have an archive of the communications. One of the things that's been a challenge for us is that the message will change, right? So, and from our understanding, the message could potentially change very rapidly. And so it's important to acknowledge that. Right now, we're saying everything is normal, we're just preparing for a worst-case scenario, but when it switches, that message will change. And so we believe in being as transparent as possible, so we'll have it up there. And we know some parents don't get our pushpages for whatever reason. So it's out there, they'll be able to get it, as well as those additional resources. And then on the faculty resource board, we'll actually have some links to online sessions presented for professional development purposes on adapting your instruction style for a virtual classroom in addition to everything that we're sharing with the parents.

Cheryl Fleming: Daren, can I jump in and just ask a quick question? 

Daren Worcester: Absolutely. 

Daren Worcester: So Jimmy, all of your resource board resources are going to be live and visible beginning tomorrow?

Jimmy Cudzilo: Beginning tomorrow, yes. We'll turn on the resources for parents, and we treat our resource boards as living breathing documents that change and they're added to and things are removed, and we'll continue to use it that way.

Cheryl Fleming: Have you made any special arrangements for possible frequently asked questions, or do you expect that when people see that, especially your parents, that they're going to have a whole lot of questions about—Are you expecting this?—or do you feel like you need to ramp up your resources for answering the phone or have somebody ready to answer more emails.

Jimmy Cudzilo: So we recorded the presentation today that will be on the resource board, so any parent who wasn't able to join us in person on campus today, they'll be able to actually go to that resource board and watch the presentation that addresses some questions. We had Q&A as well. And we have presentations from several members of the senior leadership team and the incident command team in that session.

We actually were just discussing, should we consider an FAQ? That would sort of be the living, breathing—okay, well, we're hearing this question a lot in the offices at each division. Because if I'm a parent, I'm probably going to reach out to my division office. We're asking parents to please reach out to the nurse's office.

So we're still developing all the content pieces. And like I said, we've always treated resource boards as this living organism that we can just add to and take away from if something's no longer valid. So that is going to be our approach along with emergency bulletins when necessary, if necessary, I should say that we're already using for like weather situations. So parents know that they can look at the website if there is a major announcement, it will be published on our website.

Because we're in Florida. And we have frequent weather alerts where campus will go on sort of a shelter-in-place scenario because we have open walkways between buildings and we can't move students if there's lightning in the area, and we don't release students at the end of the day, so parents are already subscribed to receive text alerts off of some of our news feeds. So we'll tap into that as well if necessary. 

Cheryl Fleming: Thank you.

Hiram Cuevas: So, Jimmy, with your text alerts, are you setting them up automatically to receive text alerts or is it the opt-in?

Jimmy Cudzilo: No, it's opt-in. We made a conscious effort not to try to, plus it's very difficult because the opt-in process requires a confirmation of an access code when you add that cell phone number initially, so because we don't have them there, you know, it's really not possible for us to opt them in for those text messages. We do have a third party tool that we could send a text blast through. It hasn't been decided definitively if we would use that, which would blast everybody and give them an opt-out option. Right now we're using the established tools for a text notification. But we do have that option with that third party integrated tool. 

Daren Worcester: Jimmy, in your communications, are you encouraging parents to go and opt-in and providing them with instructions? Or is it, whoever's in there is in there?

Jimmy Cudzilo: We actually haven't been advertising it as like, oh, make sure you've logged in and opted-in to receive these text notifications. Because that's not the message that we've been trying to communicate. The message has been, we are monitoring the situation, we do have a plan. Education will continue. If we should have to close, we will continue to use our usual communication channels and we'll send you another update. It really hasn't been into the nitty-gritty of, okay, well, make sure you go sign up here, and this is what you need to make sure you have installed on your computer at home. It's really been a, we're on top of this, we have a plan, and we're going to make it through as a community.

Daren Worcester: Thank you. You said something interesting before about, you know, not every parent receives every email due yo technological reasons. I'm curious if any of you have a separate Pushpage or email template that you use for crisis communications to get people's attention? Or if you do something different in the subject line to make sure that parents are taking notice and not just skipping it?

Cheryl Fleming: We have many templates, Daren. We have broken our Pushpage system into customized templates, mainly because it really helps with the analytics. So our Head of School has his own template. One is a general message template. One is an invitation template. But one of the things that we find is, if the sender of the Pushpage is the head of school, or a division head, our readership really tends to soar. I think folks are looking often for messages from their child's division heads, the division leaders, along with messages from the heads of school. We don't have a specific emergency template. But like Jimmy, we also have a third-party provider that we can send text messages for emergencies or outreach and we tend to use that a fair amount.

Daren Worcester: Good. Hiram or Jimmy, anything there at your schools?

Hiram Cuevas: Well, I like the conversation around the mass communication system. We're using Blackboard Connect 5, which is also another ecosystem partner, and we have yet to consider leveraging it for this particular instance. But I do know that when we've done lockdown tests and weather drills where we've utilized Blackboard Connect 5, we get lots of positive feedback because everybody's receiving the text alerts and doing the voicemails. As opposed to having a readership of say, between 60 and 70 percent, if you're lucky, depending on the pushpage that goes out.

So, I think for something like this, it's about redundancy, and I like what I'm hearing from the panelists here. So you've got resource boards as an option. You've got mass communications, you've got Pushpages, there are all sorts of tools that are available to us within our fingertips. And if you utilize them, I think you'll get 100% readership in some instances across all three platforms in some way, shape, or form.

Jimmy Cudzilo: Yeah, similar to Hiram, we also use the Blackboard Connect 5 solution, but we've really only used it primarily for the voice class. And so we have certain messages that are part of the larger plan, that would be escalated to the point where we would actually send an email plus an emergency bulletin on the website, plus a voice blast. So we sort of have the different scenarios within a school closure situation, categorize like—okay, yes, it's going to be through email, through the text, through voice, or whatever the scenario is.

Daren Worcester: Have any of your schools gone so far as to already kind of draft-up contingency communications and leave placeholders and that sort of stuff.

Jimmy Cudzilo: We have them for hurricanes. And as I mentioned, a lot of this has sort of adapting our closer policy around hurricanes. So we will be dusting those off and updating them because obviously the messaging is going to be different. You know, you're not tuning into the Weather Channel, or NOAA, you're going to be tuning into the CDC and other local news and national news outlets.

Cheryl Fleming: We have templates for drills and for real emergencies that do have that placeholder you're talking about. We don't have anything for this particular scenario drafted it yet.

Daren Worcester: Gotcha. Earlier, Jimmy was talking about how the schools are looking at spring break, and families coming back, and you know them needing to be responsible in terms of whether or not they're sending their kids to school afterward. But what about any school-sponsored trips? Do you have programs that are going and traveling and have those been impacted?

Cheryl Fleming: I'll go first here because I have the newest development—maybe. We actually had a middle school trip to Costa Rica planned, and an upper school trip to Spain, both for the spring break period. And we have canceled both of those trips. We have another activity that is still scheduled for right now—one of our lacrosse teams is heading to South Carolina. And that trip is still scheduled for training purposes. But we'll be continuing to monitor the situation and if modifications need to be made based on changes and what's happening, we'll make some new decisions there.

Daren Worcester: You should have them swing in the Blackbaud headquarters then if they're going to South Carolina.

Cheryl Fleming: I'll do you that.

Daren Worcester: Hiram or Jimmy, has there been any impact there at your schools?

Hiram Cuevas: Yes, we actually had a trip scheduled to China and it's not going to be a destination.

Daren Worcester: Understandable there. How about you, Jimmy?

Jimmy Cudzilo: Yeah, so actually, oddly enough, this is probably the first year that I've been at Miami Country Day School that we don't have an international spring break trip scheduled. All of our trips are domestic that I'm aware of. The only domestic trips right now that have been affected are those that were community service trips visiting nursing homes and hospitals.

So we have a couple of activities scheduled in the upcoming weeks where we've been contacted by those locations and they've said, we'd prefer if you didn't come by right now given the situation and we totally understand that and we actually were planning on canceling those. You know, that's really it, that's all that's been canceled at the moment. And we're taking those other trips.

We've got some, I think up to Orlando area. At the present moment, we don't have any confirmed or presumptive positive tests here in Miami. But there are some up in Tampa right now. And we do have a trip going to Tampa right now, and that's still going on as scheduled. Again, everything's changing, right. It's constantly changing. It's a moving target. We're always watching the news, checking in with the local health departments wherever our trips are going to—even domestically.

We do have a summer global studies program that I know the director of that program is working with an international medical agency to determine the level of safety to continue to conduct those programs.

Daren Worcester: That's probably a blessing in disguise that there's no international trips this year. What about other school events? I presume if the school ends up closing that arts events, athletic events, things like that would be closed. But if there are cases in your cities that start to develop and school is still open, has the school considered modifying its other schedule of events?

Cheryl Fleming: No, I think this time of year for us is an extremely busy time because we have two very successful basketball programs. And so we're in the throes of the state tournament right now. And if school closes, if we have to shut down, that would mean that our practices would be shut down, and that would ultimately affect the tournament schedule. But unless school is closed, I wouldn't see us canceling any of our on-campus events or extracurricular activities as long as they were still planned.

Daren Worcester: Hiram or Jimmy, similar answer for your schools or do you have a different take?

Hiram Cuevas: It is similar as well. So we're constantly monitoring what's going on within the state of Virginia. And right now, we're still a go for travel for competitions and whatnot, as well as having events in our own school. I do know, interestingly enough, when we were talking about travel, we do have a fleet of buses, and we've decided that we probably need to include our buses as part of the deep cleaning process.

Daren Worcester: That's a good point. 

Jimmy Cudzilo: Same here, you know, we haven't had the conversation of what if someone out in the community is confirmed, do we cancel things on campus? We'll take that if it comes up, we'll evaluate the situation. The fact of the matter is, you know, we're all out there, we're all in the community, the larger community. I'm running to the grocery store. I'm going to the gas station. And so we want to try to minimize that risk as best we can. So we'll evaluate it when it happens if it happens.

Similar to Hiram, we've got a bus fleet that's now included as part of our daily sanitation efforts. We have ramped those up a little bit on campus, the usual cleanings have been ramped up a little bit. And then like I said, we're including our bus fleet in daily antibacterial wipe downs.

Daren Worcester: If schools were to be canceled long term, what are the potential impacts that that could have on your schools regarding graduation or anything else big picture that we haven't touched upon? 

Hiram Cuevas: Well, I can't help but think it's going to really impact our high school students that are in AP classes. I think those are going to be probably the hardest hit if they are not receiving the regular classroom time that they actually need to fulfill those curricular requirements.

Daren Worcester: So you see that being the biggest impact on your juniors then?

Hiram Cuevas: Yeah, and sophomores because sophomores take the APs.

Cheryl Fleming: Our goal would be to do everything we can to make sure that graduation, college credits, college admissions processes, and so forth aren't compromised. But clearly, if you are lacking that day to day contact and interaction and normal flow of processes, there's going to be some learning curve for everybody involved.

Jimmy Cudzilo: I don't think I mentioned it—similar to how we're gonna have office hours for faculty and personal counselors, we're also going to offer office hours, virtually, if we need to, for our college guidance team to meet with their advisees. It's obviously a concern if a closure happens. Like Hiram said, if this happens right when we're getting ready to administer the AP exams, there's a challenge with that.

Our seniors have an experiential learning that normally takes place about the last month of their senior year, where they go and they basically have an intern and, you know, if businesses are closed, or it's advised for people to stay home, it will be very difficult to have that experience this year. So we would have to look at what does that look like? In this situation? Unfortunately, you know, we don't have an answer to that because the timing is just unknown.

Daren Worcester: Well, let's hope it doesn't get to that for everyone. That has exhausted my questions. Do you guys have any other questions for each other?

Cheryl Fleming: No, just to comment to say I am very grateful for the group of advisors. I've gotten some great counsel over the past few days, especially I would say even the last couple of weeks because with all of this being so new for us, and when you speak about what makes it so unique, I think because it's so big.

You know, if we are expecting a snowstorm, we all know how to get on and track the radar. But with this being global international, and having so many different components to it is one of the most challenging communications, technology, and school-wide initiatives that we have to keep our finger on the pulse of. So, I've been very grateful for all of the assistance and input and feedback I've been receiving from a great group of colleagues.

Daren Worcester: Excellent. Anybody else have a final thought?

Hiram Cuevas: I think I would just say wash your hands, stay calm, and try and keep everything in perspective as much as you can. Try and keep your students calm because they're experiencing a certain level of anxiety as well, and we certainly don't want to perpetuate it in any way.

Cheryl Fleming: That's great advice.

Daren Worcester: Well said. Alright, thank you all for doing this today and contributing to the roundtable. I really appreciate it. I think it's going to be very helpful for other schools to hear, so thanks again.

Cheryl Fleming: Thanks for having me. 

Hiram Cuevas: Thank you all.

About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

Follow on Linkedin More Content by Daren Worcester
Previous Article
Distance Learning Lessons
Distance Learning Lessons

Listen to Blackbaud K–12 Advisory Board members discuss how their schools and communities are adapting to d...

View More
The State of Blackbaud K–12 in 2020 with Travis Warren
The State of Blackbaud K–12 in 2020 with Travis Warren

Listen to Travis Warren discuss the key initiatives for Blackbaud K–12 in 2020 on the Get Connected podcast.

GET CONNECTED to the Podcast on iTunes