IAQ Tools for Schools
IAQ Reference Guide
Section 3 - Effective Communication
Schools and school districts can reap many benefits from taking a proactive approach to addressing IAQ issues. The positive public relations that can result from this approach can lead to a better understanding of IAQ by school occupants and the community. Communicating effectively — both internally and externally — is a key element.
Build rapport with the local media now. An informed media that is aware of your efforts to prevent IAQ problems and that understands the basics of IAQ in schools can be an asset instead of a liability during an IAQ crisis.
Communicating the goals of the IAQ Management Plan to those within the school — teachers, custodians, administrators, support staff, the school nurse, students — is key. The following steps can help develop good communication between you and the school occupants:
- Provide accurate information about factors that are affecting IAQ.
- Clarify the responsibilities and activities of the IAQ Coordinator.
- Clarify the responsibilities and activities of each occupant.
- Notify occupants and parents of planned activities that may affect IAQ.
- Employ good listening skills.
The checklists, forms, and information contained in this guide will assist you in accomplishing the first three objectives. In addition, refer to the list of communication principles below.
The necessary level of communication is often dependent on the severity of the IAQ complaint. If the complaint can be resolved quickly (e.g., an annoying but harmless odor from an easily identified source) and involves a small number of people, communication can be handled in a straightforward manner without risking confusion and bad feeling among school occupants. Communication becomes a more critical issue when there are delays in identifying and resolving the problem and when serious health concerns are involved.
The fourth objective deals with informing occupants and parents before the start of significant planned activities that produce odors or contaminants. If occupants and parents are uninformed, they may become concerned about unknown air contaminants, such as strange odors or excessive levels of dust, and register an IAQ complaint. Examples of planned activities include pest control, painting, roofing, and installation of new flooring. Notification of planned activities can also prevent problems from arising with students and staff with special needs. For example, an asthmatic student may wish to avoid certain areas within a school, or use alternative classrooms, during times when a major renovation project will produce higher levels of dust. A sample notification letter is provided in the model painting policy in Appendix B: "Developing Indoor Air Policies," in the IAQ Coordinator’s Guide: A Guide to Implementing an IAQ Program.
The fifth objective involves effective listening. School occupants can often provide information that helps prevent problems, and being "heard" may help defuse negative reactions by occupants if indoor air problems develop.
When an IAQ problem occurs, you can be assured that the school community will learn about it quickly. Without open communication, any IAQ problem can become complicated by anxiety, frustration, and distrust. These complications can increase both the time and money needed to resolve the problem.
Immediate communication is vital, and is easiest if a few strategic steps are taken before an IAQ problem arises. First, ensure that a spokesperson is ready by having a working understanding of the communication guidance found in this section, and a background knowledge of IAQ as outlined in Sections 1 and 2. This person should also have complete access to information as the investigation progresses. Because of these qualifications, the IAQ Coordinator may be a good choice for spokesperson. Second, establish a plan for how you will communicate to the school community. The school community includes all occupants of the school, parents, the school district administration and school board, the local union, and the local news media.
Paying attention to communication when solving a problem helps to ensure the support and cooperation of school occupants as the problem is investigated and resolved. There are basic, yet important, messages to convey:
- School administrators are committed to providing a healthy and safe school.
- Good IAQ is an essential component of a healthy indoor environment.
- IAQ complaints are taken seriously.
When a problem arises, communication should begin immediately. You should not wait until an investigation is nearly completed or until final data are available before providing some basic elements of information. Communications, whether in conversations or in writing, should include the following elements in a factual and concise manner:
- The general nature of the problem, the types of complaints that have been received, and the locations that are affected;
- The administration’s policy in regard to providing a healthy and safe environment;
- What has been done to address the problems or complaints, including the types of information that are being gathered;
- What is currently being done, including factors that have been evaluated and found not to be causing or contributing to the problem;
- How the school community can help;
- Attempts that are being made to improve IAQ;
- Work that remains to be done and the expected schedule for its completion;
- The name and telephone number of the IAQ Coordinator, who can be contacted for further information or to register complaints; and
- When the school will provide the next update.
Productive relations will be enhanced if the school community is given basic progress reports during the process of diagnosing and solving problems. It is advisable to explain the nature of investigative activities, so that rumors and suspicions can be countered with factual information. Notices or memoranda can be posted in general use areas and delivered directly to parents, the school board, the local union, and other interested constituents of the school community. Newsletter articles, the school Web site, or other established communication channels can also be used to keep the school community up-to-date.
Problems can arise from saying either too little or too much. Premature release of information when data-gathering is still incomplete can cause confusion, frustration, and future mistrust. Similar problems can result from incorrect representation of risk — improperly assuming the worst case or the best. However, if even simple progress reports are not given, people will think that either nothing is being done or that something terrible is happening.
Even after the problem is correctly diagnosed and a proper mitigation strategy is in place, it may take days or weeks for contaminants to dissipate and symptoms to disappear. If building occupants are informed that their symptoms may persist for some time after solving the problem, the inability to bring instant relief is less likely to be seen as a failure.
Remember to communicate as the final step in problem-solving — although you may know that the problem has been resolved, the school community may not know, so be sure to provide a summary status report. The graphic below summarizes the main steps for responsive communications.
- Be honest, frank, and open. Once trust and credibility are lost, they are almost impossible to regain. If you don’t know an answer or are uncertain, say so. Admit mistakes. Get back to people with answers. Discuss data uncertainties, strengths, and weaknesses.
- Respect your audience. Keep explanations simple, avoiding technical language and jargon as much as possible. Use concrete images that communicate on a personal level. People in the community are often more concerned about such issues as credibility, competence, fairness, and compassion than about statistics and details. However, provide sufficient information to audiences that are capable of understanding more technical explanations.
- Employ your best listening skills. Take time to find out what people are thinking, rather than assuming that you already know.
- Tailor communication strategies to your audience. Use mass media for providing information, and interpersonal techniques for changing attitudes.
- Involve school employees. An informed staff is likely to be a supportive staff.
- Involve parents. Inform parents about what is being done and why, as well as what will happen if problems are detected.
- Involve the school board. Encourage board members to observe the process (e.g., taking a walk-through of the school with the IAQ Coordinator).
- Involve businesses that provide services to the school (e.g., exterminators, bus fleet administrators/operators) and businesses located around the school, which may also negatively impact IAQ.
- Emphasize action. Always try to include a discussion of actions that are underway or that can be taken.
- Encourage feedback. Accentuate the positive and learn from your mistakes.
- Strive for an informed public. The public should be involved, interested, reasonable, thoughtful, solution-oriented, and collaborative.
- Be prepared for questions. Provide background material on complex issues. Avoid public conflicts or disagreements among credible sources.
- Be responsive. Acknowledge the emotions that people express and respond in words and actions. When in doubt, lean toward sharing more information, not less, or people may think you are hiding something.
- Combat rumors with facts. For example, set up a chalkboard in the teachers’ lounge or in another general use area for recording what is heard. Record rumors as they arise and add responses. Then pass out copies to the staff.
- Do not over promise. Promise only what you can do and follow through with each promise.
- Work with the media. Be accessible to reporters and respect deadlines. Try to establish long-term relationships of trust with specific editors and reporters. Remember that the media are frequently more interested in politics than in science, more interested in simplicity than complexity, and more interested in danger than safety.