21st Century School | Feature

How a District Website Connected a Community During Superstorm Sandy

Many people saw the images of the havoc that Superstorm Sandy caused on the east coast. Not everyone realized, however, that damage from the wind and rain reached far inland, too. Throughout the state of New Jersey, downed trees and power lines made streets impassable and left 1 in 4 residents without power.

At our district in Green Brook Township, NJ, classes were shut down for nine school days. Yet throughout this extended period, the community at large had access to ongoing communications through our district website. The following are some of the best practices we implemented (and others we learned) for keeping communications in a K-12 community flowing during times of extreme weather and extended closings. These tips are also based on the experiences of other K-12 districts in New Jersey that were also affected by Sandy: Midland Park School District, River Dell Regional School District, Verona School District, and Teaneck Board of Education.

Make Your District Website a Communications Hub for the Commmunity
When you have an incident like a superstorm that impacts many residents, you need to broaden your scope of communications to include information beyond the school schedule. In Green Brook, our government staff could not update the town website once power went out. So the town relied on our district website for sharing important news with all residents. Our Schoolwires® Centricity2™ website is hosted remotely and was always up.

We posted the hours and locations of places that were open to people for charging their mobile devices and for warming up, and updates on when utility crews would be in different areas. And of course, we had regular updates on possible re-opening dates for our schools. Based on the traffic to the site, it was apparent that many people who were not directly associated with the district visited the website for information throughout the extended crisis.

People with power were visiting the website, and those with handheld devices accessed it when they had a charged battery. Even after the town office had power and could update its website, residents continued to visit our site for the latest information. 

Make it Mobile
Fortunately, most people today have mobile devices, and they were able to recharge them at various times. Throughout the disaster period, we sent updated information using our electronic alerts to our subscribers. We sent alerts each time we added new information to our website, directing people to visit the website for more information when they had access. Midland Park School District and River Dell Regional School District also leveraged e-alerts, sending them almost daily to keep the public informed about school closures and possible re-opening dates. When the storm was approaching, River Dell Regional School District sent messages in advance reminding everyone to check the district website frequently in the days ahead.

Promote Your Website Before Disaster Strikes
Even before the storm hit, our district website was recognized as a valuable communications hub. We created this value by making a concerted effort to populate it with a wide range of information, and to update content frequently. I and other district and school administrators post information regularly. We all understand that if the information is important to the community, then it should reside on the district and school websites.

In addition, we continually remind our community that the website is our communications center. Whenever we send communications via e-mail or on flyers, we direct residents to visit the website for more information. Our tweets, Facebook postings, and text messages direct people to the website, too. These consistent reminders have gotten people in the habit of visiting our website routinely.

Host Your Website Offsite
The town’s website is hosted on a local server. When the power went out, government staff could not update the website. But our website was always up because we use Schoolwires’ remote hosting service. Make sure that your remote hosting provider is located in a geographic area different than your town so that they are not impacted by the same disaster as you.

Continue the Communications
Keep communicating after the immediate threat is over and power is back on. Even after students had returned to school, we continued to post information about where residents could go for FEMA assistance, and how families who were displaced could attend our schools temporarily. Verona School District let people know that its student council was collecting school supplies, warm clothing, gift cards, and monetary donations for residents in need. 

Create Non-LDAP Logins
Many districts, including ours, are leveraging single sign-on capability to give users access to various applications without having to remember multiple passwords. However, when we didn’t have power and our local servers were down, our website administrators could not log in to make updates to the site. We called Schoolwires and they created non-LDAP accounts for the district technology coordinator, network administrator, and myself so we could log on and make updates and send out e-alerts.

We are considering creating non-LDAP accounts for teachers, too, so they can update their websites when our local servers are down This way, even though our schools would be closed, our teachers would be able to engage their students in learning to some degree via their class pages. Furthermore, make sure you have the help desk number for your website provider available in back-up locations. If your cell phone is out of power, you won’t be able to access the number.

Encourage Use of Electronic Alerts
E-alerts have no value if they can’t be delivered. We regularly promote the availability of these alerts to our district constituents and the broader community in order to encourage people to subscribe to them.

In our district’s quarterly newsletters, which we post on our website and e-mail and mail to our community, we encourage our parents and all Green Brook residents to register for e-alerts as well as to “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. In addition, we send periodic phone calls and text messages to each household encouraging them to do the same. Finally, we ask all of our parents to provide us with at least two e-mail addresses when they register their children at the beginning of each school year.

Create Contingency Learning Plans
Ideally, we would have liked to have continued teaching and learning to some degree when our schools were closed for nine days. If all our students had power in their households, teachers could have posted assignments, videos, tutorials, and the like on their teacher websites. Students could have completed and delivered assignments, and students and teachers could have blogged.

But when a significant number of your students don’t have power in their homes, the possibilities for communications are limited. Possibly, teachers could send texts and e-mails to students’ and parents’ handheld devices with some limited direction on assignments to complete. We are trying to come up with some creative ways to capitalize on the widespread use of handheld devices. We learned from this experience that most people found a way to charge their handheld devices fairly regularly while power was out.

While we consider this challenge, I can’t help but note the amount of information we were able to receive and share during this dramatic natural disaster. Thanks to the value we have established in our website, the functionality it provides, and the prevalence of handheld devices, we were able to keep communications flowing during an epic storm.