When COVID strikes your school: communication and management strategies
Vaughan Couillault, Principal of Papatoetoe High School, shares his experience of navigating an outbreak of COVID that directly impacted a school and community back when a COVID case meant a school shutdown.
“The Emergency ALERTS system was easy to use and at my fingertips. I’d had it on my phone since we signed up with School-links, and I’d used it during the second lockdown back in August.”
Vaughan Couillault, Principal.
Papatoetoe High School, a co-educational year 9–13 school in South Auckland, was thrust into the limelight during the February 2021 COVID outbreak. At 11.30am on February 14th Vaughan received, “A very unpleasant phone call from a very lovely person” and embarked on, “a month’s worth of pain.” A representative of Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) notified Vaughan that there was a student with a positive COVID result at the school and there would be an announcement by the Director General Ashley Bloomfield that afternoon. Vaughan was advised that he would be able to notify the school community thirty minutes prior to the official announcement, giving him about two hours to co-construct a communication with ARPHS.
Papatoetoe High School uses the School-links Emergency ALERTS system incorporating an app for school leaders to send texts to all parents and students directly from their mobile phones. At 1.15pm Vaughan used the app to text an alert to notify parents and students of the situation and to check their emails for further information. Synced to the school’s student management system, texting ensured that the message got out to everyone prior to the Director General naming Papatoetoe High School as a location of interest.
For the next four days, the school consistently used the same approach to communications: a text alert advising recipients to check their email accounts. By the 18th, the school moved to email and Facebook as the pace of communication changed and the community became more attuned to checking social media for updates.
School staff received the information aligned to the families but with the professional ramifications explained so that they were all clear on what was required of them.
From the beginning of the situation, Vaughan made a conscious decision that the school should manage communications. So, whilst the Ministry of Education assisted with security and traffic management at school, and ARPHS concentrated on testing and track and trace, Papatoetoe High School did what a school can do best and sought to keep families up to date and reassured, “We were very contactable and approachable. Any questions people could call me - and one minute after sending that first text I had my first phone call!”
Vaughan also worked with the media, “For the same reason, I wanted to be the person that the community could see, someone they knew. I kept to the facts and if I was asked a question that I couldn’t answer, I would go away and check. We had a lot of support.”
Vaughan also drafted in the school’s student leaders to get key messages out, “We had a team of students that we could trust, and again the families knew them.”
Papatoetoe High School re-opened on March 8th with heartfelt messages from its student leaders calling on people to be kind, and Vaughan’s thanks for support and donations, shared across mainstream media. In Vaughan’s words, “You use every tool you’ve got to communicate – text, email and Facebook.” And even the media itself.