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Go paperless with school communications - be green and save green

Updated on July 24, 2012

Note: All text and photos are property of the author and cannot be reused without permission.

Banners are one way to get the word out about special events.
Banners are one way to get the word out about special events. | Source

How many kids go to your school? 500? If your school or PTA sends out a one-page announcement, that’s an entire ream of paper and 500 copies on the copier. Multiply that by five flyers per week and 35 weeks of school, and you’re looking at 87,500 pieces of paper each year, or 175 reams. Trees, water, and energy are used to make paper, and it costs your school money to buy it. It takes electricity, toner, copier usage, and someone’s time to make the copies. And in many cases, those flyers end up in the black hole at the bottom of the student’s backpack. There are better, less expensive, more earth-friendly ways to get the word out.

Gathering information about your school community

Many schools are moving towards paperless communication systems in order to save paper and money. When doing so, you have to consider the students, parents, and teachers at your school.

  • Do parents have easy access to the internet? Some families might not.
  • Do most parents have cell phones? Are they likely to have internet access?
  • How tech-savvy in general are your school’s parents and teachers? Both senders and receivers need to be considered.
  • Are kids good about bringing home flyers?
  • Are parents happy with the current setup?
  • Do most parents visit the school on a regular basis when picking up or dropping off students?
  • Are all of the parents at your school fluent in English? Do you need to provide translations in Spanish or other languages?
  • Do accommodations need to be made for individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or blind?

What information should you send?

Rather than simply finding different ways to send out the same information you’re sending out now, first think about what you’re currently sending out and whether all of it is necessary, or whether a different format or frequency would be easier or more effective. Our school shifted from a bi-weekly, eight-paged newsletter to a much shorter weekly email newsletter. The information is more timely and useful. We also decided to stop handing out flyers from outside vendors (such as extracurricular activity providers). They provided the flyers, but we felt that our own announcements were getting lost in the weekly sea of paper.

How to get the word out

There are many different communication methods available:

Paper newsletters or flyers – This really is the most effective way to reach some people, but you can still minimize the amount of paper used for each announcement. Group them all into a newsletter. Use both sides of a sheet of paper. Use a half- or even quarter-sheet of paper to get your message across. We print our Earth Day calendar each year on a book mark. Keep counts of the number of students in each class, subtracting additional siblings. This will allow you to create only as many handouts as you need to avoid wasting paper.

Stickers – Instead of a whole sheet of paper, print out information on a sticker, then put it on the shirt of the child at the end of the school day. Stickers or labels can be expensive, however.

Planners – Have kids write information in their calendar planners instead of sending home a sheet of paper with the information.

Bulletin boards, banners, yard signs, and posters– Posted messages can reach students, teachers, and staff, though parents are less likely to see them. The backs of cereal boxes make excellent free, upcycled poster material. Our school has a large, permanent, plywood bulletin board outside of our school which is repainted or covered with a large poster to advertise sports day, book sales, or other major events. If banners and yard signs are printed without dates or with a place to attach a new date or cover up last year’s date, they can be used year after year.

Marquee – If your school has an outdoor marquee, announce major events there, visible to all as they drop off and pick up kids at school.

School or class website – This can be a really useful way to post information for easy retrieval. It’s important to remember, however, that this is a “pull” method. In other words, people have to remember to go to the site to get information, unlike other “push” methods, where the information is sent to them without any action on their part.

Blogs – Similar to websites, these are updated by teachers, PTA leaders, or even the principal. They depend on the owner of the blog providing fresh, relevant information, and many people are too busy to do so. Like websites, typically, a reader has to seek out the blog.

Email – This is one of the most popular electronic methods. Yahoo and Google both have “groups” which automate the compilation and sending of mass emails. You can limit who can send emails to avoid flooding people with random information. If people get too many emails, they’ll start to ignore them. Many options for how emails will be sent and viewed are available to the moderators and users. Email can also be used by room parents to send out class-specific information or to reinforce or distribute broader messages. Our PTA brings a laptop to events early in the year to allow parents to sign up for listserves on the spot. We also have individual groups for each class, managed by class parents.

Facebook – With 901 million users and more joining every day, some schools are using facebook to communicate. Teachers should be careful NOT to friend students, however. Some schools are wary of using this medium, concerned that information will be available to those outside of the community, raising privacy issues. Our elementary school uses a facebook page to publicize our Silent Auction, with photos and descriptions of items to be sold posted frequently. Our middle school band teacher created a facebook page as a way to make announcements and for students and parents to ask questions.

Twitter – This medium is good for emergency updates or timely information. Restricted to 140 text characters, the amount of information that can be shared is limited, and not everyone uses the service. Users must check twitter to receive information and will not be notified immediately. The service is free with internet access.

Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) / Texting – Texting is more private, but requires knowing every recipient’s phone number. It may cost the recipient money if they don’t have unlimited texting service. Only cell phones receive texts and not all do. Some schools are asking parents to sign up for text messages in case of emergencies, so they can send out a text to a large number of recipients to inform them immediately of an urgent situation.

Phone calls – No, you don’t have to resurrect the phone tree, though that may be appropriate for some schools. There are automatic dialing systems (also called robocalling) available that can reach hundreds of households. For homes without internet access, this can be very effective.

Intercom announcements – Every morning, fifth-graders read the announcements at our school. You would be surprised at how much the kids hear and remember. Our middle-schoolers have morning video announcements.

Assemblies – Announcements at assemblies are excellent ways to educate the kids about upcoming programs or activities.

Creating a plan

You will probaby want to use a combination of these methods. The common adage in advertising is that people need to see something three times before they remember it. Run a survey, online, on paper, or just by word of mouth, to see how people would prefer to receive information. You could even tailor your approach, allowing folks to sign up for the methods they prefer, though this may get complicated. You will have to balance the abilities and availability of volunteers or teachers to manage your communication plan with how comprehensive you want to be.

On the other hand, one reason that messages aren’t received is that parents are flooded with information. Try to keep messages relevant, short, and to the point. Be clear about the reason for your announcement.

Something as small as switching to double-sided copies can cut your paper usage (and budget) in half, so revamping your communication system is be well worth your while. And as with other moves you make towards more sustainable practices at your school, you will start kids (and teachers and parents, too) thinking about how their actions affect the environment.

Please comment if you see any information above that appears to be incorrect. I confess that I don’t use all of the electronic methods listed. Also, I’d love to hear how your PTA or school handles communication with parents, especially some of these paperless methods.


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