The upcoming summer of 2020 looks very different from the norm for current higher education students, as coronavirus has placed traditional college and university experiences at risk. Will they be going back to school in the fall, as planned? In light of the uncertainty that students, their families, faculty and staff face, it is imperative that colleges and universities prepare to establish a learning environment that is safe for everyone. To do that, they must plan, communicate, and innovate.
There are four core steps to successfully responding to and meeting the needs of students, regardless of the severity of challenges universities and colleges are facing.
Create a Representative COVID-19 Taskforce
As a first step, colleges and universities are all developing plans that account for health risk, impact to university functions, and are working to identify contingencies if we are unable to return to some level of normalcy in the fall. What they should also be considering, though, are ideas that their employees and students bring to the table.
When coronavirus infections were first on the rise, most universities were quick to respond and shift to distance learning. However, now that the initial shock and state of emergency has passed, there is a demand for thoughtful decisions and policies on how to move forward. The best way to accomplish this is to include all relevant internal stakeholders in the conversation.
Creating a coronavirus task force and creating new or adjusting existing crisis management plans will help universities prepare to respond to the guidance of state and local governments. Some colleges, for example, created multidisciplinary teams focused on flexibility, safety, wellness, equity, collaboration, innovation and service, in response to COVID-19.
These teams should be given the power to inform institutional policies, coordinate with the community to distribute information, and evaluate universities’ public health goals. By engaging a higher education marketing agency to deploy a flexible plan that evolves with the pandemic, institutions can mitigate potential and existing repercussions of the pandemic.
Communicate with Stakeholders
All stakeholders, including students, their parents, and employees, need clear and transparent communications from the college or university and should understand the contingency plans that have been put in place.
These communications can include responses to specific challenges raised by COVID-19, continuity of operations plans, and explanation of how universities will incorporate feedback from stakeholders. Clear and transparent communication builds confidence in the institution’s ability to protect students, respond to new challenges and risks, and continue the delivery of high-quality programs.
By way of example, consider launching a communications campaign focused on connecting stakeholders with campus resources, information on how the institution is addressing public health concerns, and updates on continuity plans as the pandemic progresses. Some colleges are offering virtual town halls where community members can voice any concerns they have about having students back on campus or about virtual learning.
Clear and transparent communication builds stakeholder confidence in the institution’s ability to protect students, respond to new challenges and risks, and continue the delivery of high-quality education.
Engage with Government Representatives
Colleges and universities are taking guidance from government on how to reopen and keep those on campus safe. By having open communication channels with government officials, colleges and universities can adequately prepare for and respond to shifting public health priorities.
As we’ve seen over the past few months, the facts on the ground are constantly changing. By liaising with government, schools can more quickly adapt to meet local, state, and federal coronavirus ordinances and this puts them in a better position to rectify any issues they may have with government support.
Many schools will need and rely on additional government funding as the financial strain of the pandemic impacts their students. Cultivating relationships with government officials, allows institutions to advocate for their stakeholders from a position of strength. However, cultivating these relationships can take considerable time, so colleges and universities should consider hiring a higher education marketing agency that has the experience working with government.
Innovation in Distance Learning
Although replicating the on-campus experience through an online format is a challenge that many schools are at least exploring, students do need to feel that their investment in attending a university virtually is worthwhile. Therefore, with the possibility of having on-campus interactions restricted over the next year, college and universities must also invest in innovation to better engage students in an online environment.
Harvard University built a platform called Socialize Remotely which allows any Harvard community member to create an event so that any other community member can participate. The school is also focused on improving remote classrooms to better replicate the meaningful connections that students make with their colleagues and with professors. Investing in innovation delivers value to students and engages the university community in a personalized way that is also safe.
In a time where we, as a society, have more questions than answers, colleges and universities have been put in a difficult position. However, there are steps they can take to make sure that whatever decision they make for the coming fall semester is well-reasoned and based on facts. By creating and implementing a strategy that incorporates the opinions of stakeholders, one that puts safety first, schools can strengthen their institutional reputation and continue to attract prospective students for years to come.