Blog written by Katie Rigney-Zimmermann

The day before Saigon South International School (SSIS) returned from TET break the leadership team was called in for an emergency meeting. We learned of a novel Coronavirus that was spreading quickly through Wuhan, China. Not a problem, we thought, as many of us had been through SARS and H1N1 in Asia; we knew the temperature protocols and quickly readied school to open the next day. We had a plan! We stayed open to our students for three days. No SSIS students have been allowed on campus since February 3rd.

Years ago when I learned to play basketball at a small Catholic school in Upstate New York, one of the first skills they taught us was to plant a foot and pivot. Pivoting has become an essential skill during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the seven weeks that students have been off-campus, we have had the return date shift four times, each time the notification of the extension came within a day of the students’ possible return date. While this has been hard for our teachers and families, it has also been a challenge for our admissions office, forcing us to reschedule or cancel tours, tests, and appointments, often with less than 24 hours notice. We have had to find new ways to run our office.

Some of the biggest takeaways we have learned from this experience have been:

  • Leverage Existing Tools
  • Get Even More Social (at a Distance!!)
  • Go Ugly Fast
  • Remain Flexible & Graceful
  • Look for the Silver Lining

Leverage Existing Tools

Having an online admissions platform has been a godsend. Last semester we completed the integration between OpenApply and Finalsite. This integration has allowed us to maintain touchpoints with prospective families throughout the crisis and draw attention to the successes of our Virtual School. We had planned to launch our Parent Portals during this semester but have held back as we realized that asking our parents and administrators to learn something new during this stressful time would not serve us well. Instead, we made small adjustments to our current eNews site to help parents find all the needed information in one place. Keeping our parents informed and being responsive to their needs has helped with word-of-mouth marketing.

Get Even More Social (at a Distance!!)

Even though our office is currently open we are unable to give tours. Families are unable to see teaching and learning in action, meet our teachers and students, or walk around our beautiful campus. We have relied heavily on our social media channels, our website, and our virtual tour to do the heavy lifting. Our Facebook advertising spending tripled in the past two months and we have spread the target demographic a bit wider. Our latest campaign is drawing attention to the virtual tour. We are including more videos in our emails and leveraging our PTA to reach out more than ever.

Go Ugly Fast

One of the goals throughout this experience has been to stay one step ahead. As a team we spend time discussing how things could be worse and what we would need to do to manage admissions if the worst came tomorrow. If now is x, what is x+1? By doing this we were able to find alternative testing centers for students who were outside of the country, and so far, students do alternative admissions assessments. During the very first week, when we thought that students might be back on campus the next week, we devised a plan to admit Early Childhood students based on file review and using conditional acceptances, thinking it would never come to this. We are sending out the letters to our Early Childhood applicants next week explaining this as our new plan.

Remain Flexible & Graceful

Not everyone in your department will deal with the stress of this situation in the same way. We have to keep this in mind. As a team, we have had to step outside of our comfort zones and lend a hand in supporting work that is not really within our job descriptions. My event planner is interviewing teachers for the viewbook, and our receptionist is compiling teacher bios so that we can improve the faculty page of our website, which highlights our teachers differently, especially when families cannot meet them. At the same time, we have had to ask other departments for support when we were under deadlines. Our IT department helped us to create an app we can use so that visitors can share their health and travel history for screening before they arrive on campus.

Look for the Silver Lining

Through the use of Skype interviews we get to meet prospective families in their environment finding new ways to connect with them. In our department, we are focusing on the positives which can come out of this. Because we have few onsite visitors, we were able to clean out our office cupboards. My staff has enrolled in online English and inbound marketing courses, and we have finally been able to catch up on webinars by groups like OpenApply, Finalsite, and InspirED School Marketers.

No one knows when the pandemic will end. As a leadership team, we have set our two goals 1) keep our community safe and 2) keep the school open for next year. Now more than ever our customers’ experience will determine the sustainability of our schools.


Katie is the Admissions, Marketing, and Communications Director at Saigon South International School. She is part of the EARCOS Admissions Strand steering committee. She established and moderates both the Admissions Directors and Marketing Directors Google Groups.

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