Communicating COVID-19: Build Agency.

Dr. Carol Cwiak, Associate Professor at North Dakota State University’s Department of Emergency Management, shares the student piece of emergency preparedness

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: March 23, 2020

Along with general best practices in crisis leadership, Dr. Carol Cwiak specifically researches the student piece in the puzzle of emergency preparedness. We spoke with Cwiak, Associate Professor at North Dakota State University’s Department of Emergency Management, on March 17, following the closure of many schools nationwide.

The following Q&A details risk ownership—what we should be teaching kids, and what kids can teach us. Despite the hardships of the virus, Cwiak describes the opportunity COVID-19 gives us to build a more resilient society, starting in K-12.

What’s one thing you would teach school leaders about emergency management?

Here’s the thing: we should be teaching citizens in general how to own their own risk. We know that people who own their own risk are invested in preparing for any number of events and understand that these events will happen in their lives. That, in and of itself, creates more resilient citizens.

So we need to have that dialogue about risk ownership in the school system, really from kindergarten on—and obviously in age appropriate ways. It needs to be integrated into our definition of citizenship.

What does it mean to “own your own risk?”

There are many things in life we own our own risk about—the government doesn’t insure your car. The government doesn’t pay for your house. There are all kinds of things that, as we grow up, we learn are our own responsibility.

But what's happened is that society has kind of framed the notion that the government should be taking care of emergency management. And it's not to say that the government does not have a role, but the foundation of all risk ownership sits with citizens and individuals. And every time you give that risk ownership away, you increase the likelihood that you will not have a positive outcome.

So when I talk about risk ownership, sometimes people think, Oh, it's a burden. No, it's a piece of control you should not give away. You should ask questions. You should be engaged in your risk ownership.

Can you give an example?

So let's say you're sitting in your apartment. You are one of 100,000 people in a county, and there’s one person in charge of emergency management at the county seat level. If you're lucky, that person is totally dedicated to that position. Are you, as one of 100,000, likely to have a good outcome if you're assigning all your risk to that one person?

That ratio, one to 100,000, is not effective. There’s no way this one person at the county level can fix the problem.

We need to have a framework where other people are helping. And, ideally, what they want to do is not just engage organizations, but individuals and households. The only way we get individuals and households to help, though, is when they realize the importance of owning their own risk.

How do you encourage students to own their risk?

One way to approach it is to build a sense of agency. A sense of agency means, “I can do something. It is within my power to do something about this.” We approach preparedness with the message of, “You should,” and I think the language needs to be, “You can do this. This is part of your role.”

Often, I think kids specifically look at preparedness as something for their parents or the government to do. But let's really start thinking about risk as if we own it. We should be discussing protective behaviors, which right now are pretty much limited to simple health behaviors—everything from washing hands properly to social distancing. These are not frightening, and they're purposeful.

So the way I teach it to my students is that agency is “I can.” And the way you would ramp up messaging—particularly with younger students—is to say, “You can take steps to keep yourself and your family healthy.” Reinforcing the agency piece is the way you help them understand they're capable of owning risk. So if agency is “I can,” then the way to look at risk is “I will.”  

So for kids at the youngest ages, you start to construct messaging in that space: you can. “What can you do? You can cover your cough, you can not touch your face, you can wash your hands for 20 seconds.” This is in the “I can” space. And then “I will”—“I will do these things, I am doing the handwashing.”  

We have an opportunity to teach children about actions that they can take, which does a couple of things. First of all, it makes them feel like they're doing something to help themselves, which is helpful for mental health, right? So it gives them a little control over what potentially could be a frightening situation. The other thing is that it provides an introduction to the dialogue about serious events and how we have to be able to protect ourselves and understand that in these behaviors, we also protect others.

We’re starting to see messaging that, instead of saying, “Don’t get it,” says, “Don't give it.” And that messaging loops back around to our sense of humanity. And triggering that sense of humanity is very purposeful, especially in younger folks. It gives them some power, but it also gives them a role in protecting humanity and protecting others. That’s a space where they can feel less concern and more empowerment—both for their health and for others.

So there’s a possibility that COVID-19 can change our patterns of thinking in a way that makes us, as a community, safer?

Here’s what I think is going to happen with COVID-19: the sense of risk ownership is going to increase, and it might be one of those rare instances where it increases at the adult level—which usually happens after a major disaster, right? You have a disaster, people experience it, and then we see the risk ownership in that space increase.

But in this situation, because of its global nature and the complete social disruption that we're leaning into now—which is something that most people have never experienced at this level—people are actually learning about their ability to own their own risk. And I’m hopeful, particularly at the adult level, that it will grow roots. And children are now experiencing this in their regular space of learning.

One thing that's beautiful about children: they know what they know because they are in the moment, and this will become part of what they will hopefully—I say this to every piece of the universe that's listening—become something they normalize as expected behavior. Own your own risk.

What’s an example of someone owning their risk versus giving it away?

People transferring their risk to others are people who are waiting for specific guidance from somebody above them to tell them what to do, and I'm not talking about workers. I'm working with a company who keeps looking to other people for guidance: “Well, when the government tells us something, we'll do something”—that's giving away risk.

Here's what we know for sure: transmission between people is an issue. People can have the virus and show no symptoms and therefore infect a whole group of folks. This is not new news.

So anybody who is still waiting for stronger guidance is blowing it; they're not owning risk. They're looking for someone to give them coverage on their decisions.

If you talk about it in the public sphere, it's been heartening as we see some more extensive closures at the local level: restaurants and schools. People are finding ways to help other people at the level they can while recognizing their own potential level of risk or others’ level of risk. So people are finding ways to be humane and support others. This is what we know about society at the end of the day: We don't devolve to chaos. This doesn't become the zombie apocalypse; that isn't what it is. People find ways to help each other. That goes back to that idea that we  have power and control when we start to help others.

You’ve worked with businesses on maintaining continuity after a crisis—how might some of those principles transfer to school?

Right now, we're having to deal with the more immediate threat of not transmitting the disease. We're in this mode of one right decision. Ok. We've made that decision. What's the next right decision? And it’s really that simple right now. The first one right decision is to shut down transmission—let's do everything we can do to flatten the curve.

And then you have a workforce reduction based on illness. That's hit number one. Hit number two is the parents with kids in K-12 and daycare. And then hit number three is the extent to which you can accomplish the social distancing and telework legitimately in a space. Can you accomplish that and keep people safe?

In terms of the more complex issues: I don't know if face-to-face school will start in August. But let’s just say when face-to-face school goes back, the challenge is going to be: How are we going to address the gap between the educational space we did not cover?

We're a ways out from dealing with some of the more complicated issues in regard to what this disruption will cause for the children and then also potentially for the teachers as well.

What’s giving you hope?

This is the horrible and great thing about COVID-19—it's not just one area. It’s not one state; it’s not one country. It's the world. We all are experiencing it; this is one of those equal-opportunity events, which does not usually happen in our lane of emergency management.

People who don't have faith in humanity will say, “Oh, every man for themselves.” But that's not what we're seeing. Like in any hazard event, we’re seeing prosocial behavior. And in coming back to kids—what a great lesson for kids. What can you do to help? That messaging is critically important for this generation of kids to see and understand that when these things happen, we help each other.

So I think we’ll actually be better off on the other side of this, because the experience will be incorporated into what they know about their ability to do things to take care of themselves and others. This has always been part of emergency management’s messaging, but it has not always been received. So, it should be better! That’s my hope.

To find a preparedness tip-sheet created by a team from NDSU's Department of Emergency Management, click here.


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