Findings for Research Question 1: How Districts Communicated via Twitter During the Pandemic
We first present an overview of the themes and then describe each in-depth. Throughout the coding process, we found that themes fell into three overarching groups, which we used to structure this article:
Announcements: Variations of an announcement containing updates and/or important information.
Community: Messages focused on building or engaging with the school community through highlights of staff, students, and alumni or invitations for participation in various initiatives.
Unrelated or ambiguous: Posts wholly unrelated to COVID-19 or ambiguous posts.
The themes and groups are presented in Table 1
Table 1 The Frequency of the Themes of School Districts’ Posts on Twitter
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||Unrelated to COVID
||Spreading positive messages
As can be seen, our coding process resulted in the identification of 15 distinct themes, which ranged in frequency from comprising just more than one quarter of the tweets (for tweets unrelated to COVID-19, the theme of 365—around 27%—of all posts) to less common themes, such as community highlights (the theme for just 36, or 3%, of posts). After tweets unrelated to COVID, the next most frequently messaged themes were for three kinds of announcements, followed by three types of posts that served to build community and spread positive messages.
Next, we present the themes by group, describing each in greater detail. We anonymized the content of the example tweets.10
Announcements: School Closings
Twitter was one of several methods for school districts to quickly communicate their decisions around initial dates and extensions of closings due to COVID-19. Some tweets contained specific dates or updates from governors about state-wide closings.
Announcements: Remote Learning
As school districts transitioned to new learning situations, these tweets communicated everything from both optional and mandatory remote learning resources to starting dates and remote learning practices. Others included information regarding technology distribution, the availability of wireless internet connections, and advice for internet safety.
Districts tweeted about events, including those which occurred in a different format, such as virtual Spirit Week and school board meetings, and live streaming events. This theme also contained districts’ sharing of student participation in the aforementioned events. Others included tweets that provided updates on canceled events, such as field trips, athletics, concerts, and dances.
Many students rely on schools for at least one meal during the school week, and this theme applied to tweets related to these services that schools continued to provide for students during closure. Districts shared instructions for meal distribution including eligibility requirements, times, locations, pick-up procedures, and other community resources related to meals.
Announcements: Health Resources
School districts posted advice on health and safety, including public health guidelines regarding social distancing, hand washing, and household cleaning. Tweets shared recommendations for helping students’ mental and physical health, including tips for talking to students about the pandemic, mental health advice, and ways for students to remain active at home.
Announcements: Universal Announcements
This theme included broad administrative announcements on multiple topics including policies about grading practices, item retrieval from school grounds, newsletters, and updates from the school board or superintendents. Districts also occasionally tweeted information from other entities such as resources from community organizations and updates from the local and state government. Any tweet containing two or more categories that were different types of announcements was placed within this theme.
Community: Student Highlights
Posts associated with this theme include what districts referred to as senior spotlights—containing photos and information about graduating students—as well as scholarship awards, and college decisions. Other student highlights shared examples of students participating in remote learning activities such as virtual meetings, showing examples of student work, or performing community service.
Community: Staff Highlights
Districts highlighted teachers, administrators, and various other staff members for their work to support students and families. Tweets in this theme contained features of successful remote learning as well as district-wide highlights of pandemic response and community service. Also included were expressions of gratitude for work during the pandemic, including “We miss you” messages to students and “Thank you” tweets to meal providing and other staff members.
Community: Community Highlights
Districts also highlighted community members for their contributions, thanking parents and families for supporting students in their remote learning. Others expressed appreciation for school alumni, local organizations, and members of the community who contributed during the transition. These contributions included work on the front lines of the pandemic, donations of remote learning materials, and providing meals to families in the community, such as when a district highlighted an alumnus for their work as a nurse during COVID-19.
Community: Spreading Positive Messages
School districts used their Twitter platforms to spread positivity among students and families. They posted videos, images, and quotations to encourage students to stay strong during this difficult and stressful time.
Districts utilized Twitter to seek out participation in various opportunities and projects. These requests included donations to local community outreach, participation in surveys, and images of students engaging in remote learning and virtual events.
Community: Direct Reply
Twitter allowed school districts to communicate with individuals in their communities directly. They were able to answer specific questions, provide positive feedback, and ask questions to engage with their parents and community members. Direct replies covered many different subjects, some of which were unrelated to the other identified themes, and thus were placed into a single category to have a consistent approach for coding.
This theme was reserved for tweets that had multiple purposes and included information falling into more than one of our categories.
Unrelated or Ambiguous: Unrelated to COVID-19
Tweets coded as unrelated to COVID included those related to another theme (e.g., announcements, athletic events) which occurred before the school district closed and/or did not mention the impact of COVID-19 or the district’s response. This theme included “schooling-as-usual” tweets posted after the shutdown, including job postings, holiday observances, and nonpandemic-related achievements.
Unrelated or Ambiguous: Ambiguous
This limited theme included tweets for which it was impossible to identify a theme due to a lack of information. In one example, we saw that the district opened preschool enrollment online, but it is unclear whether this opportunity was due to the shutdown or whether online preschool enrollment was their usual approach. Because of the limited number of ambiguous posts (n = 4) and their unclear meaning, we did not include these in the analyses for Research Questions 2 and 3.
Findings for Research Question 2: Changes in Themes Over Time
In this section, we present findings for patterns of change in messages over time across the three groups through a descriptive analysis of the frequency of the themes by week. For the figures portraying these frequencies over time, we identified the median date on which U.S. districts closed (Education Week, 2020
The first group we present is for the themes we considered to be announcements. As presented in Figure 3
, messages about school closures, remote learning, and meals, as well as the more generic universal announcements peaked in frequency on or within 1 week of the week that state-wide closures were announced. The nature of these themes reflected the use of messaging in a crisis communication manner, whereby districts shared posts that were of importance and urgency to those receiving them. Health resources and requests were posted more frequently later, suggesting that these were less urgent (or were not as salient) than the announcements that were more common around the time schools were closing. While these posts continued after closures were announced, they were rarely posted before closures, and they slowly tapered in frequency beginning around 2 weeks after most schools first closed.
The frequencies for the second group, community-building posts, are presented in Figure 4
. The three themes within this group that highlighted key individuals—staff, students, and community members—increased in frequency after the majority of school closures. This pattern was also observed for posts about events and those spreading positive messages. We found the themes of these posts (e.g., highlighting students) to be associated with less urgency than those that peaked around closures (e.g., announcements about school closures). These posts broadly serve the purpose of engaging the community to direct support and encouragement to those involved with the district and community.
The final group was for posts that were unrelated to COVID-19. As presented in Supplementary Material 1
(available in the online version of this article), messages that were unrelated to COVID-19 were posted very frequently prior to when closures began. This is unsurprising; while COVID-19 was a part of the national discourse prior to the beginning and middle of March 2020, schools’ daily operations were not yet affected by it—and their social media use reflected this reality. Posts with the Ambiguous theme were not included as there were only four in the data set.
Findings for Research Question 3: Public Engagement With Messages
For this analysis, we explored engagement with messages about different themes. In Table 2
, we present the mean as well as the standard deviation of the number of three types of interactions—likes, quote tweets and retweets, and replies—as well as their sum (the total number of interactions). Online Supplementary Material 2
presents the means and standard deviations by the groups of themes (announcements, community, and unrelated) for each of the types of interactions. To interpret this table, consider the first row for school closings. Each of these posts was interacted with, on average, nearly 50 times. These interactions were mostly likes (around 28 on average), indicating that information shared by districts was acknowledged, and retweets and quote tweets (around 9), indicating a degree of collaboration in the sharing of information as well as a few replies, indicating two-way engagement (Mergel, 2013
). For all three interaction types, there was substantial variation in the estimates (indicated by the standard deviations).
Table 2 The Frequency of the Themes of Districts’ Messages
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||Total interactions, M (SD)
||Favorites, M (SD)
||Retweets and quotes, M (SD)
||Replies, M (SD)
||Spreading Positive Messages
||Unrelated to COVID
Overall, these patterns show that a number of themes within the announcements group were interacted with very frequently, specifically school closings, meals, remote learning, and universal announcements, each of which were interacted with, on average, more than 20 times. Following announcements in the number of interactions were community-building posts, including staff, student, and community highlights, and spreading positive messages; these were also interacted with around 20 times each. There were, furthermore, differences in the specific types of interactions. Our hypothesis testing approach showed that community-building posts received more likes than announcements (p
= .013), but that announcements were quoted/retweeted and replied to more (p
< .001 for both types of interactions; see Note 9 for more detail). The coefficient estimates and standard errors for the Generalized Linear Models predicting the number of interactions with posts are presented in the online Supplementary Material 3