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Wearing face masks and practicing social distancing are not what many students had in mind when they pictured their college experience. Yet for students returning to campus this fall, these behaviors must be normalized if institutions stand a chance of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Communicating the importance of COVID-19 safety measures to students is a huge challenge, said Erin Hennessy, vice president of TVP Communications. Institutions that are planning to reopen their campuses this fall must walk a “very fine line” between instilling confidence in students and their families that it is safe to return and warning them that bad things could happen if they do, said Hennessy.

“It’s a really tough spot for an institution to be in,” she said.

Colleges are already setting expectations and encouraging students to follow the rules when they return. Some institutions, such as the University of South Carolina, are asking students to pledge (and share using the #IPledgeColumbia hashtag) that they will do what they can to protect themselves and the people around them. Some institutions are warning students they may be punished if they are caught breaking the rules. Some are trying to educate students on the science behind the virus, hoping the more they understand, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior. Hennessy said many institutions are taking a combination of these approaches.

“I think most colleges and universities are trying to go into the fall semester very much with the carrot and less with the stick,” she said, noting that while all colleges are thinking about enforcement of the rules, many are hoping it won’t be necessary. “No institution wants the visual of a campus safety officer coming into a lecture hall and pulling out a student because they refuse to wear a mask, but every institution needs to be prepared for that eventuality.”

‘Maskots’ and Mask Selfies

At Lyon College, a small private institution in Arkansas, staff are trying to make sure the college communicates academic and residence hall policies as clearly as possible for students returning to campus. But the situation is changing quickly, said Madeline Pyle, director of communications at the college. The college planned to offer some face-to-face instruction this fall. On Friday, the college announced that all classes would be fully remote, but some students will still have the option of returning to campus.

In addition to making sure the university website is updated with the new fall plan, Pyle and her colleagues are reaching out to students through social media, particularly Instagram. The college launched a “Stay safe, Scots” campaign in the spring to encourage students to wear masks.

“We try to ensure that everyone pictured on our social media is wearing a mask,” said Pyle. In headshots of students, faculty and staff not wearing masks, Pyle’s team have started to add “obviously photoshopped masks” with permission. “Students particularly like seeing other students being featured,” she said.

Lyon College’s mascots, a man and a woman dressed in traditional Scottish attire, now have tartan masks to add to their outfits, said Pyle. The mascots have jokingly been dubbed “maskots.”

West Virginia University is also featuring students wearing masks on its social media. The university encouraged students to sign up for a free mask to be sent to them ahead of the start of the fall semester. In exchange, students are encouraged to share pictures of themselves wearing official university masks. Tony Dobies, senior director of marketing at the university, hopes that featuring students wearing masks will help to normalize this behavior.

“We’ve seen huge demand, not just from students, but faculty and alumni,” he said. All students heading to campus this fall will be provided with masks, explained Dobies -- the students participating in the social media campaign will just be sent theirs a little early.

In addition to social media campaigns, both Lyon College and West Virginia University have been sharing information about the forthcoming semester with students via email. During the spring semester, students were barraged with updates via email, and both Pyle and Dobies said they try to minimize this approach and email only from accounts that they know students will pay attention to, such as the president or the provost's office.

“I think institutions rightly understand the more they email, the more likely it is students will tune them out,” said Hennessy. “I think smart institutions are really engaging with parents in Facebook groups, because parents are such an important audience here.”

Hennessy has also seen a lot of focus on encouraging peer-to-peer communication among students.

“I think it’s great to empower students to be part of the solution, but I also look at the varied results we’ve seen with both institutional and peer communication around alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, financial literacy -- all of those big issues that we have been banging the drum on for years with pretty minimal success.”

At West Virginia University, all students will be required to take a virtual COVID-19 training session in addition to ones on alcohol use and Title IX, said Dobies. He doesn’t know how effective this training will be, but he is hopeful it will at least ensure that every student is aware of the policies and procedures they are supposed to follow. To engage with students’ families, Dobies has been organizing near-weekly Zoom sessions with university leaders about what to expect in the fall.

“We do get a lot of the same questions over and over, and some answers could easily be found on the FAQ section of our website, but I think we need to be aware that not everyone is able to pay attention to everything we send them,” said Dobies.

There isn’t an easy answer to the best way to approach communicating with students about the pandemic, said Hennessy. She encourages institutions to get creative, try connecting with students in different ways, then analyze engagement data to understand which approaches are most effective. “If you haven’t invested in data analytics already, it’s time to ramp that up,” she said.

An Educational Opportunity

Some institutions have turned informing students about the novel coronavirus into an educational opportunity. At Manhattanville College, a private institution in New York, first-year students are being offered a free summer course for credit about COVID-19. Amy Bass, professor of sport studies at the college, helped design the course, which grew from a multidisciplinary research group she participated in pre-COVID-19. Just under 100 incoming first-year students are registered for the course, said Bass.

Setting up the summer course has been a lot of work, said Bass, but it’s been a great way to connect with incoming students and help them process what is happening in the world. The course covers the pandemic from a variety of approaches, explaining not just the science of the disease, but the history of pandemics and the potential economic and societal impacts of COVID-19.

“It’s been interesting to see where students are starting at,” said Bass. Some have a really good understanding of COVID-19, others not so much. 

As part of the course, students are encouraged to identify misinformation about the pandemic and create their own historical artifacts, which will be archived in the college’s library for people studying the pandemic in the future.

Pioneer Academics, an organization that organizes research programs for gifted international high school students in partnership with U.S. colleges, also recently launched an online study program focused on COVID-19. Typically students would pick their own research project and be awarded college credit for their work, but to accommodate hundreds more students, the organization created a new program format this summer.  The Pioneer Open Summer Study program is not credit-bearing, but it is free for all students to attend. 

Many students lost internship opportunities this summer because of the pandemic, said Matthew Jaskol, founder and program director at Pioneer Academics. He wanted to develop something scalable to keep talented students busy and engaged in their studies. So far, the program is going well, he said. Students want to find meaningful solutions to some of the challenges posed by the pandemic, he said. 

In regular college classes not centered on the pandemic, it is still a good idea to broach the topic of COVID-19 with students, said Jamie Howard, a senior clinical psychologist and director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children’s mental health.

"I think it will be helpful for professors to acknowledge up front that this year will require flexibility on everyone’s part. If professors can be open to personalized accommodations, that will put students at ease so they can manage all of the demands placed on them right now,” said Howard. “This is a time to balance academic rigor with compassion and flexibility."

When talking to students about how they should behave both inside and outside class, Howard recommends focusing more on what students can do than what they can’t. “College students crave socializing, so they should be told explicitly what kinds of socializing are permissible,” she said. Talking frequently will also help to prevent habituation, which happens when people stop feeling afraid of a threat, and regressing to the norm, when people revert back to long-standing learned behavior.

“Equipping students with information about why social distancing is so important will also increase willingness to comply,” said Howard.

Many instructors switched to pass/fail grading in their classes last semester to alleviate some pressure on students. Pass/fail grading may not continue in the fall at the same scale, but many instructors are thinking of ways to support their students and are drafting syllabus statements encouraging students to speak up if they are struggling.

“We all need to practice tolerating uncertainty right now,” Howard said. “This is a skill, and our capacity to tolerate uncertainty can increase with deliberate practice. It can also be helpful to focus on what we are certain about, and what we do have control over.”

Dinner Table Discussions

Rita Manfredi, an emergency physician at George Washington University Hospital, worries that unless students have been personally affected by COVID-19, they won’t take safety precautions seriously. While messaging about measures to prevent the spread of the disease are important, getting students to understand the risks should start in their homes through discussion with their family, said Manfredi.

“Students think that they’re invincible,” said Manfredi. While young people are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, they may experience unexplained chronic symptoms after getting sick, she said. There is also a serious risk they may spread the disease to their friends, their professors and, once they return home, to their family.

“We need students to understand that when they go back to college, it won’t be the same. But I don’t think they do understand that. I think they’re expecting to go back and live life as they did before,” said Manfredi. “Some students have been at home since March, and they are craving social interaction. How do you tell college kids, you know, you really shouldn’t be going to that bar or sports event because you won’t be able to drink without taking off your mask?”

Manfredi, who has a son who is preparing to go to college, recommends that families sit down for a “dinner table discussion” before students go back to campus. Parents should talk about safety measures, such as masks, social distancing, hand washing and regularly disinfecting surfaces. “Ventilation is also really important,” said Manfredi. She encourages students to open windows in their dorm rooms and instructors to hold classes outside, if possible. In addition to these measures, Manfredi wants families to discuss what should happen in the event that someone becomes seriously ill.

While uncomfortable, discussions about advance care planning are important and signify how seriously students should take COVID-19, said Manfredi. When young people end up intensive care, their parents often have no idea what their child’s wishes might be, which can cause a lot of stress and uncertainty about how to proceed, said Manfredi. It is a good idea for young people to know their parents’ wishes, too, she said.

“Students need to understand this is not just a flu.”

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