Districts Using Social Media, Digital Tools to Keep Education Afloat After Hurricanes

By Michelle R. Davis — September 12, 2017 6 min read
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Even though her home lacked power after Hurricane Irma swept through her coastal area, Savannah-Chatham County public schools Superintendent Ann Levett was still communicating directly with students, parents, and teachers.

Before the storm struck, Levett had charged backup batteries on hand—and backup batteries to those—for all her electronic devices. So even though the 35,000-student district schools were still closed Tuesday, Levett was using technology to communicate with her district community.

School districts across the country count on technology not only for instructional purposes, but to provide basic communication with families. And as districts from Texas to Florida remain closed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma—which have displaced entire communities, knocked out power, and forced school closings—officials are finding digital ways to retain connections with students, parents, and school personnel.

In the Savannah-Chatham district, the school system’s Twitter account was active, retweeting information about tornado warnings and power outage updates, updating school closure information, providing hurricane safety tips, and tracking the path of the storm. From her superintendent’s Twitter handle, Levett shared additional safety data and posted photos of key district personnel helping with area evacuations. Her Facebook page shared similar posts.

The district website featured an emergency message with updates about when schools might re-open and promising 48-hour notice for district staff to return. Levett posted a Vimeo video on the site, providing reassurance to families, closure information , and promising to keep the public updated.

“What I’ve learned about social media is that parents and students are using it all the time,” said Levett, who added that the district also uses robo-calls and texts to broadcast information to parents and the community. “I decided if I wanted them to get the right information, I need to use what they use.”

Use of Social Media Evolves

On the Savannah-Chatham district’s Facebook and Twitter pages, officials posted a list of educational web sites for students to use to keep up their learning, including platforms run by Khan Academy, Read Theory, and Moby Max. The sites had been in use by some students in some schools previously, but the Facebook posting also included detailed instructions on how students could create free accounts in case they were new to the sites or forgot their passwords.

The district emphasized that any educational work was optional, as many people are without power and may not have access to the internet. According to Georgia Power, as of Tuesday morning more than 787,000 customers statewide were without electricity, including more than 15,000 in Savannah County.

“I wanted students to be meaningfully engaged while they were away,” said Levett, who isn’t new to the district, but just took over as superintendent in June. “When you’ve got kids at home and they have all of this time, it’s important for them to keep up with their studies.”

In parts of Texas ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, where some schools have been reopening this week and welcoming back students, districts’ social media responses have evolved as the flood waters receded.

Right after the storm, districts in the Region 5 Education Service Center, a consortium of 34 public school districts east of Houston, focused on posting critical updates about school closures and building damage assessments on Facebook and Twitter, said Marianne Kondo, a field service agent who has been monitoring storm response.

“As they were able to assess their districts and their campuses, the information that went out got a little more specific,” she said. Now, districts are trying to get students back into the rhythm of the school year, posting revised sports team schedules and updates on the availability of extracurricular activities.

“That’s what kids what to know,” said Kondo. “I think what [districts are] doing is trying to give some normalcy to a very abnormal situation.” Districts are attempting to make students feel secure, she added, and convey the message that, “It’s not going to be as you thought the 2017-18 school year would have started, but we’ve got a plan in place.”

The ubiquity of mobile phones and WiFi has made it easier than in past disasters to coordinate a response among districts and ESC staff, said Kondo. In 2005, during Hurricane Rita, districts could only rely on email to electronically exchange information, and access to the internet was spotty, she said.

In the aftermath of Harvey, the education service center has mostly relied on social media for districts’ updates, trying not to bother superintendents who are busy with relief and recovery plans by calling and asking for information, said Kondo. “There are just so many more access points.”

Reducing the Angst

In South Carolina, where the 22,000-student Beaufort County Schools was set to re-open on Wednesday after Hurricane Irma swept through, officials have used a special hurricane alert feature on the district web site to provide updates, shelter information, and school closing and re-opening notifications. The district’s Twitter and Facebook pages were actively sharing information and parents received automated phone calls and emails in English and Spanish, as well as text messages and notifications through the district’s mobile app, said district spokesman Jim Foster.

The Beaufort district is a 1-to-1 district, and all students in grades K-12 have their own devices. A pilot project during the evacuation for Hurricane Irma had high school teachers posting virtual lessons for students, Foster said.

Levett, the Savannah-Chatham superintendent, said Monday that her district was still evaluating schools for storm and flooding damage. She was particularly concerned about one district charter school located on Georgia’s Tybee Island. The island’s one bridge to the mainland was closed until it could be inspected for damage.

She also was not sure when the Savannah-Chatham district would re-open. Some of the schools were slated to be used as shelters for those who had evacuated ahead of the storm but were returning to assess damage. The district planned to make paper copies of math and reading assignments for students staying in the shelters, to keep them busy, she said. (See Education Week’s related story on communities use of schools as shelters.)

Levett’s use of technology to communicate goes both ways. She’s had encouraging digital messages from parents and students who see her on television and read her posts on social media.

“We’re really trying to reduce the angst over what the schedule will be,” she said. “A woman sent me a note this morning saying she saw me on social media and said thank you for keeping us up to date.”

Intern Sarah Schwartz contribued to this report.

Photo: A city employee works to clear storm drains on a flooded street in the downtown area of Waycross, Ga., after Hurricane Irma moved through the city on Sept. 11. --Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.