The biggest Facebook group for schools-related information in Volusia County has transitioned from public to private, just as the Volusia County school district is ramping up its own communication strategies.
The Volusia County School Forum doubled its membership over the course of the pandemic to almost 12,000 people — but recent changes to the way Facebook treats groups made it so that only members can post or comment on the page now.
All of the existing posts — often questions posed by parents and answers from the page’s administrator and longtime school district volunteer Kim Short — are still visible to anyone who navigates to the page.
Meanwhile, communication and easy access to information has long been a point of contention in the Volusia County school district. Former Superintendent Tom Russell was ousted in part for communication problems with the board, and tensions flared in the community during the pandemic from a perceived shortage of information from the district.
That’s partly why Short’s Facebook forum has always been a valuable resource: it’s about conversations and getting answers to specific questions, rather than one-way communication.
“I think the difference (between information from the forum and from the district) is that ours is still a bit of a free for all — in that people can post questions and I answer them,” Short said. “I’m not 100% controlling of what I want to put out.”
Controlling, or at least directing, messaging about schools has been a focus for the school district. School Board members routinely raise concerns about the discussion on social media about the school system, and there are several changes coming at the district level meant to share positive stories and make information more accessible to the community.
“We’re hoping to just push out the fact that we all know Volusia County Schools is the best place to learn,” said the district’s spokesperson Kelly Schulz. “We want everyone else to know it.”
The school district’s strategic plan — it’s road map to achieve its goals — highlights communication as one of five areas of focus. With the plan in place for less than a year, the district is already making strides to improve communication, an area Superintendent Scott Fritz said can never be over-emphasized.
So far, those strategies include hiring someone in February to manage the district’s social media pages; a new customer service system to get people answers quicker and to track the types of questions people are most frequently asking; and a new social media campaign where students, parents, teachers and staff give testimonials about why the district is such a great place to learn and work.
An informal study in Volusia County showed that 80% of 35- to 55-year-olds get their information from Facebook and Twitter, Schulz said.
“We knew that we had a platform we needed to utilize.”
The district has always had access to the school messenger system: a way to call, email or text every family in the district during emergencies or with important information. Social media serves as a supplement to that system. District staff posts anything from job openings and lists of early release days, to photos and videos of students doing cool things.
“We’re just trying to look holistically at the platforms that we’re using, targeting the specific demographics of people and how we can communicate,” Schulz said.
Short has always known the value of social media, but saw it surge during the pandemic, when stress and anxiety played into the thirst people had for information. Although her page is not affiliated with the school system, Short has years of experience as a volunteer, as a member of various Parent Teacher Associations and School Advisory Committees and has her own relationship with district employees to help her get information.
“I try really hard to get official answers from the district, and I think that’s what makes our page a little different,” she said.
Short’s school forum used to be public, but went private when Facebook began to alter the way it treated groups and Short began to see an increase in messages and requests to post from fake accounts or accounts in other countries. Of the 90 accounts that are blocked from the group, Short said, the majority are fake. She felt it was best to make the page private — anyone can still join, but they have to say whether they live in Volusia County or not.
For Short, being able to answer questions and provide different viewpoints to any discussion is important. Particularly during the pandemic, she saw a lot of genuine anxiety in the people she spoke to and the posts that were shared.
“if I help these people get answers, where they’re not getting answers from the district right now, maybe that will help them.”