Communicating COVID-19 in Higher Ed: Student Edition
Given recent disruptive circumstances surrounding COVID-19, students more than ever are being flooded with vital and often-changing information to protect their health and safety as well as the future of their educational experiences and attainment. In an effort to aggregate the continual communications sent to students, colleges and universities are often creating hubs of information on their websites, which encompass everything students need to know about their institution’s status, policies, key dates, and resources available going forward.
In a recent service innovation initiative led by Ithaka S+R and Northern Virginia Community College, we surveyed thousands of students on potential service offerings to address their unmet needs, and found that students would very much value the availability of a “knowledge base” — that is, a single point of contact, such as a web-based informational hub, for help navigating college resources and support services. Over the past couple of weeks, colleges and universities have been increasing their efforts to offer a similar service to students — this time, with a very particular focus of detailing policies concerning COVID-19. To better understand and provide insights to the higher education community on these COVID-19 student information hubs, we qualitatively analyzed a few dozen college and university websites presenting information to their students on the global pandemic.
Using the crowdsourced Google Sheet of colleges and universities moving to virtual instruction, developed by Bryan Alexander, we randomly selected institutions to use for our analysis. Both private and public as well as two-year and four-year institutions were included. We examined and coded the websites of each of these institutions on Wednesday, March 18, paying close attention to how they were formatted, what communications were included, and what kinds of policies were enacted. The results of this analysis are captured below.
Interestingly, each COVID-19 student information hub has a unique display and organization of information. However, there are some similarities in formatting as almost all of the information hubs use bullet points to organize information, embolden important text, provide a FAQ, and have a running list or archive of past communications to stakeholders. Half of the hubs also have informational videos, charts, graphs, and fliers on COVID-19 and institutional policy changes. For instance, some have videos in which a president or other administrator personally addresses students to introduce and walk them through the hub, explain their decision-making process, and provide more detailed information on taking precaution during COVID-19. One hub includes a table with different scenarios detailing the steps that should be taken when coming into contact with people who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Additionally, more than half of these information hubs provide information on COVID-19 symptoms as well as recommendations for decreasing the spread of the virus. A few announce whether there have been confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the campus community. Almost all information hubs provide direct links to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and to their state, county, or city Department of Health.
Tone and Style
Next, we examined the tone and style of communications archived on the information hubs. In most cases, these messages are signed by the college or university president or another member of senior leadership. These communications are generally personal and informal and have an emotional tone, expressing both positive and negative emotions.
- Positive emotional language: Despite writing about such a difficult topic, the vast majority of messages include positive emotional displays such as expressions of gratitude and appreciation of the generosity and kindness of the community, pride in faculty, students, and staff, and hope for the future.
- Negative emotional language: Leaders also acknowledge anticipated negative emotions. Unsurprisingly, the most common negative emotional terms are fear, anxiety, worry, and nervousness, acknowledging that students may feel anxious about getting COVID-19 and its impact. A few also included expressions of regret about moving to online courses and sadness or a heavy heart about the implications of the pandemic.
Nearly all messages also include common phrases such as “in an abundance of caution,” “after careful consideration,” “closely monitoring,” “social distancing,” and “flatten the curve.” These buzzwords have been used by many within and outside of higher education when discussing COVID-19 and demonstrate that even as scholars and students physically distance themselves, they continue to be connected by the common language they use.
The bulk of the information contained within online COVID-19 hubs naturally focuses on the different policies in place. These policies have been coded into five overarching themes: facilities access, courses, basic needs, travel, and anti-discrimination.
All institutions that provide residential facilities include policies on which facilities are closing and which are remaining open. The most commonly included facilities are dormitories, dining halls, libraries, and recreational facilities.
- Dormitories: In most cases, dormitories at this point are closed to students, but those with exceptional circumstances are able to apply to remain on campus, while all other students are expected to move out or not return to campus after spring break. In about one third of the policies, those who move out may receive prorated reimbursement of their room and board and meal plans. Additionally, a few institutions are allowing all students to remain on campus if they wish.
- Dining halls: Dining halls remain open at roughly half of the campuses, but they are generally operating with limited hours or restricting access to takeout only. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students remaining on campus are provided with a free meal plan to use for the remainder of the semester. And, in a few other cases, dining halls are fully closed.
- Libraries: Half of the websites include specific policies about the library. Of these, about half of the physical locations are closed and half remain open, mostly with limited hours or limited access. Of those that are closed, steps have been taken to fully operate online. A couple of institutions included more specific library policies such as no fines for overdue books or extensions to due dates to after campus reopens. (Our colleague Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, along with Lisa Hinchliffe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been extensively documenting via survey the current landscape of policies and services at US academic libraries over the past week.)
- Recreational facilities: All policies indicated that recreational activities are cancelled and corresponding facilities are closed. Online recreational activities (e.g. online fitness classes and guided meditations) are instead encouraged by some institutions.
Since we sampled from a list of institutions moving online, all COVID-19 student information hubs included policies on transitioning to online learning. In nearly a third of cases, classes are being temporarily cancelled prior to moving online to give instructors time to prepare. About a third of institutions provide exceptions for labs, clinical programs, and art classes, as long as the necessary facilities remain open. However, instructors are strongly encouraged to move their courses online if possible.
In transitioning courses online, one quarter of institutions expanded access to pass/fail or credit/no credit grading schemes for their spring courses, which involved extending the deadline to request that courses use these alternate grading schemes. MIT mandated all full credit spring courses be graded pass/fail, while all non-credit courses are cancelled. In a few cases, students are also allowed expanded access to withdrawing from their classes with no consequences, including no additional fees, a tuition refund, and the ability to sign up for summer classes instead.
COVID-19 student information hubs vary in their provision of resources associated with basic needs; one institution, Sacramento State, dedicates an entire page within their hub to provide information on resources for basic needs. About half of the institutions we examined provide information on available internal and external resources for mental health, food insecurity, cleaning procedures, and resources for laptop and Wi-Fi access (if a student does not have access to these resources at home). Less than half of institutions provided information on child care services, and accommodations for students with disabilities.
- Counseling: Many colleges and universities are providing phone or online sessions to students who may need mental health or counseling services.
- Food insecurity: Some institutions have kept their food pantries open while limiting hours of operation or only permitting appointments. Some are also providing external resources, such as online grocery delivery services and resources on federal support services. Norwalk Community College provides a page dedicated to helping students locate food assistance
- Computer & internet access: In most cases, students are encouraged to reach out to faculty or to fill out a request form for resources if they do not have access to a computer or ample Wi-Fi. Some colleges and universities are continuing to keep their computer labs open for students who have permission to be on campus due to their lack of access to essential technological resources at home.
- Cleaning & disinfecting efforts: Institutions are reassuring students that they are taking additional efforts to clean and disinfect high touch areas, such as computer labs, and are providing additional hand sanitizer stations. Everett Community College details the specific cleaning and disinfecting products they are using to keep their campus clean.
- Child care: Many colleges and universities have closed their child care services, and some are keeping them open.
- Disability accommodations: A few institutions are providing more resources to disabled students to receive their accommodations, and some information hubs list this information as forthcoming.
All student information hubs detail policies on travelling internationally and domestically, and half have information for students who are currently studying abroad. Most are suspending institution-supported international travel and are limiting institution-supported domestic travel on a case-by-case basis. Over half also mention personal travel, strongly discouraging and advising against such travel, citing federal guidelines of best practices on traveling during COVID-19. Lastly, about half have information for students studying abroad: some only have recalled students from CDC level 3 countries, some have asked but have not required their students to return, and the rest have recalled all study abroad students regardless of country.
We also coded for anti-discrimination policies addressing bias against Asians and Asian Americans due to the origin of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. While slightly less than half of institutions did include recommendations, they generally did not explicitly ban discrimination. Instead, they discussed the stigma Asians and Asian Americans are currently facing and offered contact information to report bias that does occur (e.g. links to pages such as this). In most cases, these statements are located within the policy sections or FAQs, but in a few cases they are included in the messaging from the President or other senior leadership to students. The latter approach signals to students that senior leaders are taking this bias seriously.
Specific Institutional Policies
We reported the most common policies included across the different institutional information hubs in our sample above, yet many schools have additional policies that do not align with these themes. For example, some institutions provide information on rescheduling and/or canceling admission events and commencement ceremonies, storage options for students moving off campus, and new parking policies. Many institutions also provide information on specific offices and services at their campus. For instance, two schools that have pharmacies on their campus will allow students to have their prescriptions delivered to them by mail.
We provide the analysis above to illuminate some of the initial strategies that higher education leaders are pursuing in communicating with their students in this very difficult time. Colleges and universities are continually communicating with their students as the COVID-19 pandemic develops and as policies emerge or change. What strategies are your institutions pursuing? What strategies would you like to know more about at other institutions? Please use the comment box below to share.