Part I: Life After COVID: Lessons Learned, Where Do We Go from Here?

Part one of a three-part series.

There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on school communities across the country. As another school year begins, confusion, uncertainty, and controversy still lingers, dashing hopes that life will be returning to normal any time soon. When we first discussed the focus of this blog, COVID-19 cases were decreasing, vaccinations were increasing, and the prognosis for a post-COVID world was pretty darn rosy. Enter the ultimate party spoiler: the Delta variant, proving once again that when it comes to a pandemic, there is no sure bet.

This last year forced schools to adjust quickly and look for creative solutions amid a stressful time. We spoke with three school marketing/communication and enrollment management experts about their experiences during the last 18 months as they quickly pivoted from “business as usual” to “pants on fire” communication while information and decisions changed on a minute-by-minute basis.

Today’s blog discusses their professional experience and lessons learned during this time. The second part of the series will focus on how it changed their organization and what they are looking forward to as things calm down. In the third installment we ask them to pull out their crystal balls and look toward the future. Answers were edited for clarity and brevity.

Our experts:

  • Nicole Evans is the director of Marketing and Enrollment Management for the Diocese of Des Moines Catholic Schools.
  • Jonathan Oleisky is president of Kalix Marketing, providing strategic marketing services to independent day and boarding schools and educational organizations nationwide.
  • Molly Woodman is the director of Admissions at Marian High School, a private, Catholic college preparatory school for young women located in Omaha, Nebraska.

What stands out to you as you look back on your experience with marketing/communication and enrollment management during the pandemic? 

Jonathan Oleisky: Trust between the school and its enrolled and prospective families has always been the most important commodity in independent school leadership. During the pandemic, it means everything. Trust is created through transparency, authenticity and flexibility.

It has been a challenge for school leaders to ensure they embody these values when health and safety information shifts daily and a school community is living through something the world has never seen before. But it’s essential. For many schools, crisis communication before March 2020 was something they may have talked about theoretically but not experienced. Since then, every email, website and social media post essentially has been a crisis communication.

Trust is strengthened every time a school shares information quickly, succinctly and consistently. Our clients learned these past 15 months that it’s okay to say, “We don’t have the answer yet to this, but as soon as we do, we will share it with you.” Everyone understands that information right now is fluid. Schools did a great job of sharing information and adapting messages quickly and accordingly as needed. In turn, families knew that they could trust the school. I believe that this moment changed school communications forever, both for the communicator and the recipients.

What did you or your clients learn about that time – your role as a communicator, managing a crisis day in and day out? Any lessons, regrets, sources of pride? 

Jonathan: While Kalix Marketing does not communicate directly with school communities or manage daily crises, we counsel our clients on how vital it is to be consistent with messaging. We encourage schools to share the same COVID messages with their internal and prospective constituencies. Families looking at schools during the pandemic are looking for community. Sharing the same message with current and prospective families creates that community – and underscores a school’s authenticity.

While it’s not crisis communication, there is a key takeaway for school marketing from this moment in time. Many public school families shifted to independent schools during the pandemic because they wanted a more profound learning experience for their children, including safe, in-person learning.

We have always stressed promoting a school’s “value-adds” or differentiators to a market, but now, it’s essential to retain and attract public-school families. This goes beyond what schools might think of their traditional differentiators (lower faculty: student ratios, campuses) to programs some independent schools might take for granted, such as personalized college counseling, strong faculty/student relationships, opportunities to be part of a community, to name a few.

Emotion is the heart of effective marketing, and families made an emotional choice to embrace independent schools during the pandemic. Schools should highlight their successes and show how they brought the community together during this time, which gets to the core of why any family chooses a school: to ensure that the child is seen, embraced and known.

What did COVID teach you regarding communicating to your school families, faculty, staff and donors? Any lessons, regrets, sources of pride?

Nicole Evans: It is better to over-communicate than to under-communicate. Providing frequent, consistent and concise communications through the COVID pandemic helped ease tension and concerns parents may have been experiencing.

I’m proud of our Return to Learn plan and the multiple platforms we used to communicate this information with parents, including our website, social media channels, e-booklet, printed handouts, and video.