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How College Campuses Are Responding To The Coronavirus Outbreak

On Tuesday, Harvard joined the growing number of colleges and universities canceling in-person classes and moving to a remote learning model amid escalating concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States. Following Spring Break, scheduled for the next week, students were asked to leave on-campus housing and treat the departure as if it were the end of the year, according to AXIOS. Harvard has nearly 7,000 students, 98% of which live on campus, raising questions for students who are unable to travel - such as poor or international students - as well as logistical concerns of moving classes online. But higher education institutions like Harvard taking swift action, despite concerns, is essential. College or university campuses are high-risk for virus transmission, as large groups of people live and work in close quarters. 

Many other colleges announced a similar shift to remote learning in early March, including MIT, Columbia University in New York City, Princeton in New Jersey, American University in Washington D.C., Rice University in Houston, and the University of Maryland System. The Ohio governor recommended all college or university campuses in the state move classes online on Tuesday as well, a process that was already underway at sprawling Ohio State University, which is home to over 68,000 students in Columbus. Many educators are seeing the coronavirus as an opportunity to test online-learning, and its potential to bring flexibility and accessibility to academia, as per the Chronicle of Higher-Ed. 

Decisions to send students home for the semester have stirred inevitable confusion among students, faculty, and staff. For example, students in work-study programs, or those who work off-campus to pay for tuition, were offered few answers about their financial or academic future. Dining hall workers and other school support staff also faced financial uncertainty, as colleges and universities scrambled to offer more clarity on paid-leave policy and the future. 

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Harvard attempted to assuage some of these concerns on Tuesday - students who couldn’t afford to travel home met with the office of Financial Aid, while those without a home to return to or alternative plans were directed to residential deans, as per AXIOS. The university also pledged to offer “emergency-related paid leave” to all staff unable to work remotely, but has yet to specify whether that compensation will continue through the rest of the semester or the summer session.

Developing a communication strategy for coronavirus or COVID-19 response will be especially critical for higher education institutions looking to prevent panic as community members face academic or financial confusion. 

How Are College And University Campuses Dealing With Coronavirus? 

On Friday, the University of Washington became the major university to move to classes online, canceling in-person sessions for its 50,000 students, as per the New York Times. Washington State has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with over 100 cases of coronavirus in the United States appeared in Washington, with 83 cases and 17 deaths reported in King County alone, as per USA Today. Governor Jay Inslee announced a prohibition on community outings of 250 people or more in the Seattle area, and the state has the second-most cases after California. But UW is not the first school taking increasingly drastic measures to prevent spread of the virus, and since the university’s announcement, a growing number of campuses have mobilized emergency planning teams to coordinate shutdowns and trainsitions to a remote forum. 

Many schools have prepared a remote learning program, and are warning students and faculty to prepare not to return from scheduled Spring break. The Department of Education eased rules for colleges or universities looking to close campuses amid the outbreak, granting what it said to be “broad approval" for schools seeking to work around federal standards as they began remote learning programs, according to the New York Times. A new Federal Student Aid guidance released on Thursday promised colleges and universities flexibility to adjust calendars and course schedules and accommodate students who cannot meet enrollment requirements, or who are unable to complete internships or study abroad programs. The department guidance also outlines plans to maintain financial aid eligibility for students who qualify for financial aid, such as federal work-study or Pell grants, even if students are not on campus. 

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Amid the complicated process of moving class online, colleges and universities have taken several other specific steps to manage operations and academic continuity while stopping the spread of the virus, according to NPR. Even before the CDC’s advisory about studying abroad many colleges and state university systems halted ongoing and upcoming travel programs. On Thursday, President Trump banned all travel to and from Europe, excluding the United Kingdom, blocking visitors from countries in the European Union as well, as per the New York Times.

Cancellations of travel plans have meant finding last-minute spots for students or faculty on campuses, but these plans may quickly change as well. For schools, such as New York University, students who traveled home to China during the Lunar New Year were asked to relocate, and many attended class in Florence, Italy, before being sent home from there as well, as per NPR. Faculty have also felt the effect of travel suspensions, with major meetings and academic conferences such as Educause facing cancellations, and researchers feeling the loss of ability to collaborate with colleagues across the world. 

College and university leaders must make plans and accommodations to help students from China. For the 37% of Chinese students enrolled at a college or university in the United States who were forced to remain in China after traveling home for the Spring Break or Lunar New Year, schools have been offering the opportunity to do an independent study, take a semester off, or enroll online, according to the Institute of International Education. For Chinese students currently studying on American campuses, orders to return home are more complicated, as these students will be unable to return home for Spring break, or even the summer. Institutions are putting into place counseling services, or in some instances tip hotlines, to report any instance of discrimination amid the transition to remote learning. 

Each college or university must prepare for even greater, and potentially long term, disruptions. Institute a disaster and academic continuity plan - for example, Sam Houston State University in Texas reimplemented policy from Hurricane Harvey, as per NPR. If a college or university does not already have an emergency academic continuity procedure in place, higher education leaders and public safety should communicate to create one. Many colleges or universities decide to make 15-week courses into 7.5 week intensives during a disaster scenario, and schools have found that even with reduced time, students were able to stay on track. Many college or university campuses contain public health research centers, and the outbreak can pose a unique potential  

One other critical part of a college or university response plan is communicating vital warnings or guidelines. Students, parents, faculty, and staff are facing a lot of uncertainty, and institution leaders should do their best to prevent panic. 96% of colleges of universities reported distributing health or safety tips amid the outbreak, urging everyone to wash hands frequently and anyone with symptoms to self-quarantine, according to NPR. Additionally, campus communications can encourage students, faculty, and staff to take a conscious role in rejecting racism or prejudice associated with COVID-19, which further alienates community-members during a crisis already characterized by stigma, anxiety, or tragedy. 

Managing Communications Amid Coronavirus Outbreak 

Emergency communications play a critical role in coronavirus response. For college and university campuses taking any of the above measures to respond to coronavirus - whether it is moving students off campus after break, reducing semester-time, or canceling conferences and other future travel - communicating with students, faculty, and staff is essential. Make sure that community members have updated information regarding campus policy or academic amid coronavirus response, as well as provide updates from the CDC as available, using electronic communications. 

A mass notification system can play a major role in implementing coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency procedure. For example, orders to leave campus immediately or effective as of spring break, left many students who relied on federal work-study or off-campus jobs anxious about their future on campus. Leaders should communicate with the student body that pell grants and federal work-study will be unaffected by the inability to meet in-person. It’s important for students, especially those who are struggling financially, to be told whether or not travel-assistance or subsidies to cover shipping and storing of belongings are made available. Notify students as the coronavirus situation develops, and use the system to inform community members that future updates about the college or university openings or closings. 

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Foreign students may also have fears about academic future - F Visas, permit students only to take one course online and remain in the United States; students on M Visas are not typically allowed to take online courses, according to the New York Times. Immigrations and Custom Enforcement issued a guidance saying it would be “flexible on temporary adaptations” for international students, and the college and university enrollment office should reach out to any students from other countries with any updates via electronic communications. 

Outbreak concerns have also resulted in anxious parents - and college and universities have seen a significant uptick in calls and emails from student guardians following a week that has amounted to an inflection point in the pandemic. A mass notification system can be used to communicate with parents directly - and inviting them to sign up for college or university alerts via SMS Opt-In - can assuage fears and mitigate chaos for administration offices. Administrators can use one keyword for students or parents to text-to sign up for COVID-19 related updates, or multiple keywords, and either keep community members signed up indefinitely or until the end of the semester. 

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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