Graves: Dealing with the ‘email firestorm’


As the school year has now thankfully gotten underway in these interesting times, I find myself regularly inundated with communications from parents, faculty, staff and constituents of every stripe. This has presented an equally interesting problem, what I like to call “email avalanche.”

It occurs when so many emails arrive at your inbox that both responding to all of them in a timely fashion and doing all the rest of your job become mutually exclusive.

A few weeks back, even after what I like to think was a diligent effort on my part, I found myself facing so many new emails after arriving home on a Friday afternoon that I became seriously perplexed. So I did what I like to think I always do when faced with an intractable problem: I attacked it. I spent an inordinate amount of time in my home office that evening and powered through enough of them that what remained unresponded to now looked manageable.

On Saturday morning, I opened my email to admire my painstaking efforts from the night before and was reminded of another phenomenon, the “email firestorm.” This occurs when every email you send is instantly responding to. Such responses may be lengthy and they may simply be “thanks” (or, quite succinctly, “You're an idiot”) but either way they must be opened and reviewed. My hard work on a long Friday evening had paid off in the form of a long Saturday ahead. In a truly whiny indulgence, I began to imagine myself a modern day Sisyphus, endlessly rolling that border up a hill in Hades. (OK, my office at home isn’t quite that bad.)

As I worked, alas, I noticed the emails coming in were actually exceeding the number I was answering and then deleting. The harder I worked, the taller the pile grew. The rabbits were breeding faster than I could shoot them. At noon, I powered down my computer, took my wife out for lunch and scrupulously avoided my office for the remainder of the day.


Doing so was very much against my nature. (Avoiding work, that is, not taking my wife out to lunch.) While I can be as slothful as the next arboreal mammal at times, I tend to find it less stressful to simply finish a task than let it perch on my shoulder and clamor for attention. But it seemed to be the only way to wrestle my inbox into submission.

This is not to say I don’t value emails or wish that people would stop communicating. At this time, more than most, sharing and exchanging information is critical. Along those lines, one question — and a very good one — that seems to pop up more frequently than a diaper in a landfill is, “How many COVID-19 cases will it take to close school?”

Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly as satisfying as the question. There is no such number. In the advice of the experts and from my conversations with the Department of Health, there seems to be a strong consensus that there are simply too many variables to ever set definitive criteria in advance that will result in physical school closure and a shift to across-the-board eLearning.

Having said that, I’m deeply hoping that this is an “if” and not a “when,” that while individuals will need to step out of the picture for a while and various students and educators and parents find it necessary to quarantine, such situations will never grow so large as to necessitate school closings. Nevertheless, over our best, determined efforts, they may become reality.

So, if no number can be pointed to that would cause such, then how would that decision be reached? It would be reached through discussions between the superintendent of schools and the South Dakota Department of Health. While the DOH has made it clear it will only provide recommendations on such occasions, it is hard to imagine a situation in which their recommendations would not prevail.

And on such a dark but necessary day, the superintendent would then write up a letter to students, parents and staff and send it out, explaining when such would begin, how schooling would be handled and when it might end. The letter would go out on paper, in texts and in media announcements of every sort.

We might even send it out attached to emails. See how your inbox likes it…

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