Communicating COVID-19: Integrate with the Community.

Director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management, Dr. Curtis Harris, shares tips for school leaders.

Dr. Curtis Harris, Director of the University of Georgia’s Institute for Disaster Management, is an expert in emergency and disaster global health.  With over twelve years of experience in the field, Harris has had a top-down view of some of the most pressing circumstances in the past two decades, including disease outbreaks like Ebola and the Zika virus.

We got on the phone with Harris on March 11th to talk through school leaders’ response to COVID-19.

What do you think that effective leadership looks like during a crisis?

Number one is being proactive—it’s learning everything that you can about the situation so that you can make the most informed decision. That’s drafting plans, and then practicing them: conducting drills and exercises and having involvement from the school system and your community.

Another thing that’s top of the list is really being integrated with your community, planning with your community, and training with your community so that you have an integrated structure, where everybody is operating in concert with one another.

It's also your willingness to make hard decisions that are in the best interest of faculty and students. Sometimes those are decisions we may not want to make, but are in the best interest of all involved. A final important piece of leadership is being there: being a part of it, being the face. It’s being at the forefront and knowing that every decision that you make is going to be scrutinized whether it's right or wrong.

Why is community integration so important?

One of the issues we've historically witnessed in emergency management is that organizations engage in “siloed planning” which means if you're a school system, you only plan with your school system. If you're a hospital, you only plan with your hospital, and so on.

But we know disasters do not affect a single entity: they affect the community. And so by practicing with your community and integrating with your community, you have what Craig Fugate, the former director of FEMA, described as the whole community concept, where every organization is planning together and operating towards the same goals and outcomes.

For a school leader who wasn’t able to do the integration work with their community beforehand, how can they get started?

The first thing is to be community-minded and reach out across multiple organizations. The first one that I would look at is your emergency management agency. Every county has one, and they are probably the most important person to have a relationship with leading up to or in the aftermath of a disaster.

Additionally, school systems need to be involved in their healthcare coalition. Roughly a decade ago, a federal mandate from Health and Human Services stated that we have to develop healthcare coalitions. By definition, a healthcare coalition is a group of healthcare organizations and public safety and public health partners that join forces for the common cause of making their communities safer, healthier, and more resilient. By participating in coalitions, the school system will be highly integrated into their response community.

What does great communication look like in a situation like the coronavirus?

So there's several key components here. Number one is that we have to broadcast frequently and across multiple media. You can't rely on any one outlet as a sole means to communicate, whether it’s social media, television or radio. It is critical that we broadcast utilizing multiple media platforms so you reach as broad of a range of the population as humanly possible.

You also want to be consistent in your content and tone. You need to have a calm demeanor about what you're stating. If it seems like you're overly panicked, then others are going to pick up on that, and they're ultimately going to be panicked as well.

You also want to reach a diverse audience, keeping in mind that not everyone in the US speaks English or has the ability to hear. Therefore, you want to broadcast in multiple modalities, keeping all vulnerable populations in mind.

Also, you have to be specific on the information about the hazard and to whom it applies. But as you're doing that, you cannot use technical jargon, because not everyone is going to be able to comprehend what you are trying to say. So often we think about communicating on a 5th to 8th grade educational level to ensure that everybody understands the information. Finally, and this goes back to my point above, it has to be truthful and credible.

How can schools reach vulnerable populations?

It goes back to community partnerships. If you look at vulnerable populations—the deaf, non-English speaking, or even low socioeconomic populations—there is almost always at least one advocacy group in the community that works with those populations. So if you're abiding by that whole community concept, those vulnerable populations ought to be incorporated in your plan.

But if they're not, then you reach out to these organizations—whether they're civic organizations, nonprofit organizations, or maybe it's Meals on Wheels. Then you can use those organizations to disseminate information.

How can leadership help manage anxieties about the virus?

First and foremost, you have to put out messaging that is based on the best science and information currently available, and it has to come from credible people. It only takes that one so-called expert to discredit scientifically factual information, and that can be detrimental to the overall response.

However, there is one caveat to that statement: as it relates to COVID-19, we're learning more and more on a day-to-day basis. So guidance issued today has the potential to change tomorrow, and it doesn't mean that our guidance from yesterday wasn't credible; it just means that we've learned more in the last 24 hours.

So I was watching 2020’s special on COVID-19, and one of the things they did well was stating over and over again, “Based off of what we currently know” and “This is subject to change.”

Some will then ask, “Why don’t you wait until you know everything before you release information?” We don't want to wait until we know everything before we start releasing information, because then there's all sorts of fears and theories that come out. Therefore, we rely on evidence-based information to release guidance in an effort to be as proactive as possible.

Can school communications help build a sense of community?

So right now in the news, we’re seeing instances of folks hoarding face masks or toilet paper.

In those instances, we have to use multiple media platforms to explain: there are the things you need to be doing (like hand-washing and good public health practices), and there are the things you need not be doing (like hoarding face masks). Both of these messages are important.