On March 12, 2020, Gov. Whitmer announced all schools in Michigan would close due to the coronavirus pandemic. As manager of Detroit Public Television’s (DPTV) Early Education Initiatives, Tara Hardy knew that news would change everything her team delivers to her core audiences: young children, families and early childhood caregivers and teachers in metropolitan Detroit.
“Overnight, the expectations changed,” said Hardy. “…We knew we needed to respond quickly and we really needed to respond with quality.”
So the DPTV education team of Senior Vice President Georgeann Herbert, Education Coordinator Jeni Sobbry and Hardy met at the station on Saturday morning to develop a plan to help parents and families as they became their children’s full-time educators.
“We just surrounded ourselves with white boards and said, ‘Ok. What are we going to do?’” Hardy said. “We knew families would be home a lot. We knew parents were going to have to juggle a lot of balls and weren’t going to want to drop any of them.”
Important messaging to kids about COVID-19
“The first thing we talked about was messaging,” Hardy said. “How do you talk to your kids about coronavirus? We reached out to parents … and then we quickly developed messaging. On Sunday I was in the studio for probably about six hours recording messages. We developed messages for parents on how to build support for yourselves. … How do you build a village so you’re not isolated?”
Within 24 hours, these public service announcements (PSAs) were shared on Detroit Public Television reaching key audiences in their homes, where they’d spend most of their time due to Michigan’s Stay-At-Home orders due to COVID-19.
Re-imagining the needs of children, families and teachers
This weekend planning session evolved into a two-week marathon, as the team revised and produced new content for all their communication platforms. Their web team redesigned their education website to support the increase in new content, including these new PSA’s.
Next, the DPTV team reexamined the regular weekly e-newsletters sent separately to parents and to teachers.
They created one new daily newsletter for parents, families and teachers, filled with content and activities by age and grade level. It includes a recommended book of the day and an educational app of the day that kids can use without parents feeling guilty about screen time, and offers suggested activities using common items found around the home. These newsletters are also available on their redesigned website, so they are easily accessible in Detroit and beyond.
They also reimagined their daily broadcast of content every day, realizing all kids would be out of school for awhile. They expanded daily programming for school age children, modifying the schedule on their primary channel, reminding viewers of programming for young children on their 24/7 Kids channel, and utilizing afternoons on their WORLD channel to offer new content every day for children from pre-K through grade 12.
All Detroit Public Television’s changes have been well received by the Detroit community and beyond.
“We’re almost approaching primetime ratings,” said Georgeann Herbert. “We are seeing a 5,000% increase in webpage use. People are accessing us in record numbers on digital platforms. Partners are pushing our content out to district superintendents across the state. Our content is being utilized by other stations across Michigan and also other states like Ohio and Arizona.”
In addition, DPTV now hosts its popular in-person seminars for parents and educators on Zoom, and provides learning resources for teachers on how to make distance learning models work for them.
Leaning into the strength of communities
“Connecting with families is what we’ve always tried to do,” Hardy said. “… We listen and we watch and we educate ourselves about what’s going on in our communities, and we do that by being out in the communities and talking with our partner organizations.”
During this pandemic, they have doubled down on listening to the community. They reached out to parents and families in Detroit, to ask what they needed, and connected with local educational experts on content ideas more frequently than before.
“We get together with reps from Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Wayne [Intermediate School Districts] and Detroit Public Schools and several Great Start Collaboratives every day at noon for a half hour,” Herbert said. “They’ve been very helpful in sharing information on what we need to provide for parents.”
They also started spending more time listening to and supporting each other.
“I don’t think Georgeann, Jeni and I slept for about two weeks,” Hardy says. “We just couldn’t. We just kept going, going, going. … About halfway into the first two weeks, we all just took turns hitting our wall. … And we started checking on each other, spending five minutes on each of our calls asking things like, ‘Are you sleeping? Are you drinking too much coffee?’ We all got along well in the beginning, but now we’re like soul sisters.”