In the last couple of weeks residents of Lincoln may have noticed that Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) has rolled out a new master class in poor organizational communication. Although we didn’t ask to be enrolled, the pedagogy appears to be sound, the content diverse, and our chances to practice the concepts frequent.
This organization containing 50,000 students and staff and impacting nearly all of Lincoln’s residents made a sharp policy turn last week, reversing course on the original plan to send Lincoln’s students home for remote learning should the Lincoln-Lancaster County Risk Dial go into the “red” zone. This original plan, found in the 600+ page document released prior to the start of school was replaced with…well…we aren’t sure. See: Lesson Four: A Day Late and a Few Dollars Short
Right on the heels of this problem, LPS closed a preschool “out of an abundance of caution” (See: Lesson Five: The Only Thing We Communicate Clearly is the Gaslighting) due to an outbreak of COVID-19. LPS has also finally admitted to spread within the schools. Kind of.
Seeing Red Nebraska has obtained an exclusive copy of the syllabus and instructor’s guide for this course and we share it with our readers today.
Lesson One: Lack of Communication is Still Communication
Learning Objective: If there is something difficult to communicate, DON’T. Just make the change. No one will notice. On the off chance someone does notice, students will learn the proper way to handle questions in future lessons. Instead, for this lesson, focus on obfuscation.
How LPS Taught Lesson: LPS created course materials right on their own website. This change in policy in the “red” zone directly alters the policy for if (and let’s get real, when) Lincoln and Lancaster County head in the COVID-19 red zone.
Literally everyone in the city of Lincoln created plans based on the risk dial policy set by the schools in June, and updated in late July. Parents made decisions about sending kids to school in person, believing that when the risk was too high, kids would be home. Businesses planned their workforce policies based on whether or not employees would have a place for their children to be during the school day. Daycares and preschools planned their policies based on those made at LPS. A person would be hard pressed to find anywhere in town that isn’t depending on the information they received from LPS.
But fear not. LPS was almost able to make this change under the radar. Too bad Seeing Red Nebraska and several local news outlets were able to point out the change. Thanks for the parents who noticed.
Lesson Wrap Up: Remind students the important thing in difficult communication is not to communicate the change at all. Just make it and hope no one notices.
Lesson Two: Burying the Lede Under Two Tons of Rock
Learning Objective: When making an important and possibly controversial policy change, announce it where no one will actually hear it. Make sure any statement is vague.
How LPS Taught Lesson: The superintendent made the following statement at a Board of Education meeting.
This is a perfect place for the statement. It’s on the record as these meetings are recorded and televised. However, I would guess that no more than tens of people tune in. Those of us who pay particularly close attention to local issues may tune in occasionally, but people with jobs and families hardly have time to attend their own board meetings, and certainly do not have time to watch all the board meetings of all the government entities that happen weekly.
But I actually WAS watching. I heard this comment. There are a whole lots of “if”s and “maybe”s in there to make this an actual policy statement. In fact, literally ANY policy LPS enacts in the red zone jibes with this statement.
So, when alarm bells rang at the sudden change of policy, officials pointed to this statement as proof of consistency.
Lesson Wrap Up: Remind students to communicate all vagueries where it will be both hidden and recorded as proof of intent for any later need.
Lesson Three: Lack of Communication as a Public Service
Learning Objective: When any constituency asks for more communication, turn lack of communication around as a favor to them. People should leave this interaction knowing that you did them a service by keeping all the pesky details out of their way.
How LPS Taught Lesson: First, the LPS communications team gives us an opportunity to practice the skills learned in Lesson Three by reminding us about the “announcement” that occurred to no one and said nothing of the sort.
Then, just in case the superintendent’s announcement wasn’t clear as mud, it’s time to tell us that we didn’t actually want all these details.
A person who hasn’t taken this course might think it would be simple to say something like,
“Dear LPS Families,
We have been so impressed with the efforts of students and staff in keeping the COVID-19 numbers down inside our school buildings. We have been working closely with the LLCHD daily and with the new information we have learned since our original pandemic plan was released in July, we hope to release a detailed plan that may allow our kids to stay in-person should the county risk dial move to red. Please look for an updated plan to come in the next couple of weeks.
It’s clear. It’s concise. It in no way conveys that the county has moved to red.
But instead, LPS masterfully made it the parents’ fault that they didn’t get the message, because they aren’t able to understand simple words.
As a parent, I received three clear and concise communications from LPS in the 24 hours following the change to the website. One was about the phones being down, which I never would have known about without the email. I wasn’t confused. I didn’t think I should immediately call and check the phones. I received two about how my children and teachers are expected to behave during the week leading up to the election. I didn’t think it meant that there was bad behavior already or that it was imminent.
Lesson Wrap Up: It’s never your fault, students. Always, always blame the recipient for not receiving the communication.
Lesson Four: A Day Late and a Few Dollars Short
Learning Objective: When Lessons Three and Four are a fail, it’s time to actually put out a direct communication. No need to do it in a timely fashion though. Wait until the media has already reported it and the entire city is in a tizzy. Apologize, but make sure people know that it’s still mostly their fault they didn’t get the memo.
How LPS Taught Lesson: Well, would you look at that. It’s almost like they DO know how to communicate the exact thing they wanted to say without confusing people. Except, there is no plan in place. The plan is “wait and see.” This is unacceptable to an entire city who depends on this district for their planning.
This communication – without reference to the meeting-that-no-one-saw-and-the-statement-that-said-nothing – may have been acceptable, BEFORE the website was changed. This statement came four full days later, and still said nothing.
Lesson Wrap Up: Apologize, but blame. Do it well after everyone has stopped paying attention.
Lesson Five: The Only Thing We Communicate Clearly is the Gaslighting
Learning Objective: If learners take away one thing from this lesson, it’s that the recipient of communication can never trust their senses. What they see is never what they think they see. What they hear isn’t what they think they hear. It’s probably something else. It’s definitely something else. If they believe their own senses, you have failed. Admit nothing. They are ones who are wrong.
How LPS Taught Lesson: An outbreak of COVID-19 happened in an early childhood program at Elliott Elementary. LPS tells the local paper they are closing out of an “abundance of caution.” Except, that’s not what “abundance” means. Abundance means “a very large quantity” or “more than you need.” An abundance of caution would be closing the whole school. Perhaps overkill, but certainly abundant. Closing a program where everyone is sick is a “minimum of caution.”
But wait, there is more. Five people (as of the article) had tested positive in the same zone. But LPS communications tells us not to believe what we clearly see. It doesn’t necessarily mean the cases represent school spread they say. It’s possible the cluster is serendipity.
When there was a cluster at the packing plant in Dakota City, they closed because of an outbreak. They didn’t say, “hold up, it’s possible it happened here, but also, look over there.” When Ameritas had a case of COVID-19 early in the pandemic, they closed. They didn’t pretend it couldn’t spread there.
Bonus Lesson 5B: How to Make the Local News Complicit in the Gaslight
When Seeing Red went to pull this quote for this piece, it was gone. After Lesson 6, the entire article was re-written to remove this damning quote. The full text was found in the Omaha World Herald and in a Google search of the quote, but when the link is clicked, it goes to the newly revised article without the quote.
Lesson Wrap Up: Whatever you want the recipient of your communication to believe is the truth. Never waver. What they see and hear is irrelevant. Stay strong in the face of any protest.
Lesson Six: Oh Shit, Now We’ve Gotta Spill the Tea (Decaf Edition)
Learning Objective: If you have made it this far, all your efforts of obfuscation have failed. It’s time to come clean and be direct. But not too direct. This is a great time to practice the gaslighting we learned in Lesson Five. If you need to review, now would be a great time. Remember, don’t admit to all of it. Never admit to all of it.
How LPS Taught Lesson: This email was sent to LPS families, including staff. Note the underline. I honestly couldn’t have done it better if I’d have made the edit.
See, too many people said it was impossible that it wasn’t school spread in the Elliott preschool. There will be many more positive cases coming and LPS knows it. It’s Lincoln’s version of the Rose Garden superspreader event and yet…”potential”…it’s a work of art, really.
There was also a press conference where Dr. Joel emphasized that it was possible that there has been some spread in the schools.
Lesson Wrap Up: OK, you’ve been caught. But you don’t have to go down that easily. Spill, but hedge. Always hedge.
Let’s be clear: no one thinks that we will never have an outbreak in the schools. That would be unrealistic. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the policy or procedure. It means what we all know, transmission risk isn’t zero, even with all the precautions in place. For the most part, LPS has done a good job preventing spread within their buildings. The positivity rate is lower than in the general population. Masks and cohorting have largely been effective.
But communication? Please, LPS, cancel this class.
Be safe, be respectful, be responsible. It’s up to you.
Or does that only apply to elementary students?