Few organizations have been impacted by COVID-19 more significantly than colleges and universities. Almost instantaneously, once-bustling campuses filled with students attending lectures, dining halls, athletic events and parties were left empty.
The student exodus has resulted in major challenges for universities. In some cases, students are demanding refunds for tuition, room and board fees. About 8% of freshmen have already deferred admissions offers, opting to take a gap year before agreeing to move to a densely populated campus. Refunds and deferrals are igniting major financial challenges for schools. For example, the University of Kentucky, is “projecting losses up to $275 million this year for its campus and medical center from the virus, and $70 million next year on the academic side.”
In a diligent attempt to get students to return to campus, many universities have released plans detailing how they plan to safely bring back students. In May 2020, the American College Health Association (ACHA) released a 20-page document providing a blueprint for universities to enable a successful return. In their blueprint, the ACHA outlined the intrinsic challenge with returning students, explaining “the high touch, highly interactive, mobile, densely populated living and learning environment typical of most campuses is the exemplar of a congregate setting with multiple risk factors for ready transmission of COVID-19.”
Despite these challenges, a thorough plan that includes contact tracing and testing can lower the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. Foundational to this plan is a strong communications strategy that conveys confidence, broadcasts a unified message and empowers students with the information they need to remain safe.
Here is a five step timeline colleges and universities can take to safely bring students back to campus:
- Step 1 (July): Listen to your community about the appetite to return
- Step 2 (August): Manage the complexity for returning to campus
- Step 3 (As soon as students have returned): Create an Early Warning System on Campus
- Step 4 (During semester): Create a private way for students to solicit help
- Step 5: Deliver proactive, consistent communications to all students
Step 1 (July): Listen to your community about the appetite to return
The biggest variable driving reopening plans will be whether students feel comfortable returning to classes. In April 2020, Niche surveyed college students to ask them whether they would feel comfortable returning to school and approximately 78% of university students expressed their desire to return to a traditional campus.
While these numbers are encouraging, they may veil some lingering doubts, so it’s important for universities to contextualize these findings. For example, students from a university based in New York City who would need to return to campus in Manhattan, an area hard hit by COVID-19, may be more reluctant to return to campus than students who attend schools in areas that were not as impacted by the virus. Furthermore, evidence indicates that students are more inclined to choose a campus closer to home so that they won’t be reliant on travel considered high risk, such as transport by airline, train or bus.
Given the many variables students must weigh, it is not easy to generalize the results of a national survey to determine whether students want their own university to reopen. These decisions must be made on a campus-by-campus basis.
One effective approach universities can take to evaluate the sentiment of their students is through surveying social media. In the case of Gen Z students, nearly 90% of student-aged adults (18-24) leverage digital channels, such as Instagram and X, formerly Twitter, to share their views. Universities can harness the conversations of student populartions to get a sense of whether there is a general appetite to return and, if so, what are the general themes of concern for campus reopenings. Depending on the feedback from the broader community, universities can determine whether and how they will reopen their campus.
Step 2 (August): Manage the complexity for returning to campus
Even for campuses that decide to reopen, there will be many complexities to manage. Schools will need to promote social distancing through measures like lectures with reduced student counts, athletic events with no fans or dining halls with no open buffet options.
Universities across the globe have started to release their plans to keep students safe. For example, the National University of Singapore released a plan that divides students into several different “zones” that will limit the amount of contact that students can have with other students on campus. But after releasing their initial plans, students shared concerns that the plans are too confusing. Similarly intricate plans will leave many students with unanswered questions. In the weeks leading up to student returns, schools will face a surge of students reaching out to ask these questions, and universities will be unable to keep pace with demand.
This coming wave can be addressed through scalable messaging on digital channels. There are many great examples that can be studied and emulated from governments. During the height of the pandemic in March, many global health agencies and governments launched digital chats to help quickly provide targeted information. For example, in March, the World Health Organization Launched chatbots on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in an effort “to reach 2 billion people and enable WHO to get information directly into the hands of the people that need it.” While colleges and universities will not need to manage the same scale of inquiries, employing the strategies that governments used earlier this year will help them manage and triage many of the questions that they will be receiving as students prepare to execute the complex logistics of their return.
Digital chat solutions can provide two main benefits for colleges and universities. First, universities can ensure their students are receiving accurate guidance on back-to-campus plans. Creating an easy, scalable way for citizens to quickly get information from a university-sanctioned source will help prevent unnecessary confusion and prepare students to successfully practice social distancing principles as soon as they return to campus.
Second, enabling students to ask questions on digital channels helps them receive the information they want on their own schedule and prevent frustration. With legacy telephone hotlines, students who are left on hold for hours — a scenario that could become plausible in the days leading up to students returning — and, in some cases, they may never be able to get through to a university staff member after waiting.
As more students reach out to their campuses for guidance, universities will notice that the majority of inquiries are about similar questions, underscoring the impact that an FAQ chatbot could have to deflect much of the student call volume. By effectively triaging the majority of questions, service agents can be alleviated from many straightforward questions and, instead, focus on some more of the challenging questions.
Step 3 (As soon as students have returned): Create an Early Warning System on Campus
Ideally, if a student started demonstrating the symptoms of COVID-19, the individual would immediately self-isolate and seek a COVID-19 test to confirm the necessity of quarantine. This ideal scenario would provide universities an accurate understanding about whether pockets of infections exist and what actions they need to take to protect the safety of students. But realistically, universities cannot expect every single student to follow these ideal protocols.
These programs, while promising, require infected students to self-recognize they are displaying COVID-19 symptoms and subsequently get a test. By the time that this has happened, it’s possible students will have interacted and spread the virus to other students. Mounting evidence suggests that young demographic groups often display less severe symptoms of COVID-19. Contagious students who are experiencing muted symptoms may not recognize that they may be COVID-positive and, as a result, will fail to follow the steps to self-isolate and get a COVID-19 test. Given the pernicious nature of COVID-19, universities will need a solution that will notify them when an anomalous number of students are reporting subtle symptoms of the illness that could be a harbinger to a larger outbreak.
Once again, evaluating conversations on social channels across the university community can provide an early warning that students are starting to fall ill. Data from the initial pandemic outbreak in March (sample seen below) showcases that many people self-report symptoms on digital channels — for example, X, formerly Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, among others — often attempting to get feedback from peers or their broader social network about whether they should seek medical attention. And significantly, because many messages on digital channels associate a location, aggregating this data will empower universities to understand if there are volumetric spikes in conversations happening about early COVID-19 symptoms and serve as an early warning for the university. When potential early outbreaks are occurring, universities can act quickly to provide guidance to students and prevent a wider outbreak.
Step 4 (During semester): Create a private way for students to solicit help
As noted earlier, university reopening plans will be reliant on students to get tested and receive the necessary treatment for COVID-19. To make this successful, universities will need to remove every possible barrier for students to seek the medical testing, treatment or guidance they need. One of the biggest hurdles that universities face will be students who are reluctant to publicly seek necessary treatment.
Recent evidence suggests that many Americans face stigma, even after they have recovered from COVID-19. These concerns have become so prevalent that the CDC has published guidelines about how public organizations must handle communications with anyone who has tested positive or who may have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient. We can expect the same challenges will be present for college students and that the fear of stigmatization may prevent some reluctant students from being seen visiting a university health center. Transitioning conversations to digital channels can help remove mental barriers and encourage students to seek help.
During the pandemic, we have seen an acceleration toward telemedicine, which include digital chats between doctors and patients. Digital chats would allow students to contact their university health centers to share concerns and symptoms, and receive guidance about whether they should get tested or self-isolate. These online chats provide two key benefits.
First, digital chats facilitate increased discretion for students, which helps prevent the perceived risks — specifically concerns about stigmatization — of publicly visiting campus medical facilities. Private chats are an effective way to manage crucial conversations because students will be able to feel more comfortable being transparent without the fear of being seen seeking medical guidance or overheard talking via telephone to a medical professional about COVID-19. This will help remove any personal mental barriers that students may have to getting the help they need.
Second, engaging in conversations over digital channels provides an easy way for medical practitioners to check in and monitor the progress of patients. Digital chat channels, like Facebook Messenger, are inherently asynchronous and provide the opportunity for the students or practitioners to follow up to ensure continued contact. For example, if a student reaches out to a campus doctor to share concern about an initial set of symptoms, such as dry cough and fever, the doctor could automate an alert that they should follow up with the student to see how their symptoms are progressing so that no COVID-19 cases slip through the cracks. This constant contact would allow universities to more closely monitor how campus health is evolving.
Step 5: Deliver proactive, consistent communications to all students
The cornerstone of any successful return-to-campus plan will require proactive, consistent communications with the broader campus. In its recommendations to universities, the ACHA emphasized that “communications must convey the institution’s confidence in the information, contain the institution’s brand identity, send a unified message, and align with the core mission and values of the university.”
Through regular communications, universities can empower their students with facts so that they take precautions not to spread the virus and, in turn, reduce and decelerate transmission rates across the campus. Additionally, in the event of a rapid outbreak, students can know exactly what communications channels to check to understand the necessary steps to maintain campus safety.
For orchestrating effective communications, choosing the right channel is crucial. While universities may be tempted to only use channels like Facebook and X, formerly Twitter — the two dominant sources often cited for finding news and information — they may run the risk of missing a large segment of their audience. For university-aged students, channels like Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat — these channels are commonly associated with image and video sharing — are now more commonly being used to find news. In fact, in a recent survey by Business Insider, nearly 60% of college-aged students listed Instagram as a primary source for news content. Indeed, it will be crucial for universities to understand the channels that are most commonly used by students so that they can quickly broadcast updates to campus.
Regardless of the channel used, universities must embrace consistency across their many channels so that students don’t become confused by varied language. Variances in guidance across their different accounts often provide no added value and actually create an opportunity for information to be unintentionally misinterpreted.
Maintaining student safety as campuses reopen will present many complexities. Because students live, eat, study and socialize together in close proximity, universities need to be hyper vigilant to prevent an outbreak. A small outbreak on campus can rapidly devolve into a major health crisis. But by deploying a robust communications plan that enables students to receive the personalized information they need to understand campus complexities, engage with medical professionals to comfortably share healthcare concerns and inform students about time sensitive updates, universities will be positioned to safely welcome their students back to campus this fall.