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How Colleges and Universities Are Communicating With Incoming Students

Across the United States, colleges and universities are making difficult decisions about the Fall semester. Many colleges are bringing students back to campus, putting in place mask requirements and requiring half-empty classrooms, as well as allowing students to live in social-distancing compliant “pods” to minimize socializing. Most of the schools reopening will shorten the semester in an attempt to avoid a second wave of coronavirus infections expected in late Fall, planning to send students home before Thanksgiving break. Even so, schools must have a remote learning contingency plan, meaning campus safety teams should be prepared to connect with the incoming class of freshman and transfer students virtually. 

In May, California State University, the largest four-year public college system in the country, announced its plans to suspend in-person classes for roughly 480,000 students for the Fall semester and move most classes online, as per NPR. Several other colleges have opted for a “flex” plan, which will include both face-to-face and in-person coursework, while modifying open campus spaces to better accommodate social-distancing practices.

In August, one week into the Fall semester, several colleges and universities announced plans to move courses online for two weeks in an attempt to control an unexpected coronavirus outbreak. If the outbreak cannot be contained, students, faculty, and staff will once again be encouraged to leave campus. The higher ed institutions attempts to mitigate fast-growing outbreaks among returning students has served as a warning sign for other schools, and some,  such as Michigan State, shifted their plans to a remote learning model. Given the rapidly changing situation on campuses across the United States, fast and reliable communications have never been more essential. 

No matter what scenario your college or university is planning for Fall of 2020, administrators must be prepared to communicate with incoming students in a remote learning setting, Even amid the most optimistic outlook for a Fall semester, public health officials advise having a plan for a worst-case scenario, including an outbreak on campus. Students, faculty, and staff must be prepared to move to a remote learning model at a moment’s notice, should a “second wave” of COVID-19 occur.

Related Blog: What Fall Semester 2020 Will Look Like Across Universities

Additionally, the informational sessions incoming students expect, such as a freshman or transfer student orientation and welcome committee events, will not be possible due to social distancing measures. Campus safety officials have a responsibility to communicate critical information with freshman or transfer students, from mental health resources to academic advising, making it clear that these resources will be available even amid virtual learning.

How To Communicate Resources to Incoming Students 

There are several ways to communicate resources to the incoming first year college and university students. We've outlined a few below: 

Plan virtual orientation events.

Before coronavirus, incoming students would be able to visit a college or university campus, helping transition to life on campus. COVID-19 makes these in-person gatherings impossible, but colleges can still connect incoming students with orientation leaders for virtual sessions, facilitate course registration online, and help students cultivate the academic success strategies. 

Many college or university campuses have already implemented virtual orientation programming. For example, the University of Rhode Island set up an online orientation platform, designing a four-part program that began in May. First, the school paired each student with an orientation leader who could answer their questions about the school. Orientation advisors from both the academic advising department and faculty advisors will use the platform to set up small group advising meetings throughout the summer. Students can also meet with advisors via video chat, and enroll in a one-credit course about academic success. 

Emphasize mental health and counseling centers.

Being a college or university student amid a global pandemic comes with additional stressors. Depression and anxiety were on the rise among college students even before COVID-19 - suicidal depression, severe depression, and rates of anxiety among college students in the United States have nearly doubled over less than a decade, according to Reuters. Many factors may be contributing to this crisis, from the growing prevalence of smartphones to rapidly rising tuition costs. The coronavirus pandemic and economic fallout from it will inevitably put additional strain on students already susceptible to depression and anxiety. College leaders have a responsibility to provide additional support and care to these individuals. 

Related Blog: Addressing Graduate Student Mental Health Concerns

One critical aspect of orientation must be connecting students with resources for student support and success. While some colleges are setting up a one-credit course focused on self-care and academic planning amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, others are simply bolstering the mental health resources offered through the campus counseling center. A mass notification system can be a powerful tool for increasing mental health awareness, reminding students of available counseling resources via text, email, voice message, digital signage, or on social media. Even though students aren’t on campus and can’t receive this information via pamphlet, academic leaders can still make sure that individuals are taking advantage of remote resources. 

Be realistic about the risks.

Many faculty members and administrators are concerned that reopening plans are unrealistic - risky behavior peaks in college-age adolescents, and enforcing social distancing measures might be a tricky proposition. Additionally, many of the adopted plans don’t include safety measures for kitchen workers, landscapers, and cleaning crews for dormitories. It is impossible to predict the arrival of a second wave of COVID-19, nor are public health experts certain if the downward trajectory of cases in hotspots across the United States will continue. While there are many academic and financial incentives for returning to on-campus life, doing so may not be possible for those who are high risk or international students unable to travel.

Before coming to campus, make sure students understand how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. Following strict social distancing measures while on campus can continue to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission for those on campus. Students, faculty, and staff with pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk of contracting a serious case of COVID-19, or international students should understand remote learning options before the semester begins.

Leverage a higher education coronavirus response solution to better reach students as the Fall semester begins. The tool can serve as a directory and guide to support resources for all campus community members, whether on or off campus, connecting incoming students with campus counseling, academic advising, and other relevant departments.

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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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