Many students will be anxious about the prospect of returning to campus amidst the coronavirus crisis. Here’s how your institution can alleviate their concerns.
The new academic year is fast approaching, and universities across the globe are having to make difficult decisions about what the higher education experience will look like for their students.
Institutions are considering how they will offer the high-quality education and services that students expect, while at the same time protecting them against the threat of COVID-19.
The University of Cambridge became the first UK institution to announce that lectures would be online-only for the duration of the 2020/2021 academic year, with the possibility of hosting smaller teaching groups in person.
Many others are making more short-term commitments, such as California State University who announced it “intends to go without in-person instruction for most classes in the fall term.”
There are some institutions however, who have decided to blend both online and in-person experiences immediately, from the beginning of the academic year.
For example, unlike many other Harvard institutions, Harvard Business School is planning for a year of hybrid teaching methods, presenting students with the option to study remotely or in-person as the year progresses.
However, the university stresses that if a student chooses in-person methods, they will be asked to follow strict processes to protect the safety of staff, students, and their family members.
The university’s Dean Nitin Nohria and Executive Dean for Administration Angela Q. Crispi said: “To our students, in particular, we must be forthright: if you want in-person classes, you will need to follow these guidelines.”
Developing guidelines and rules is a significant step in reducing the anxiety students may feel around coming to campus.
With a clear understanding of what is being done to protect them from the coronavirus, and the actions they must take to contribute to this goal, students are more likely to feel reassured that their safety is a priority.
It’s important that plans are made as soon as possible, as reopening campuses during the outbreak is a complex task that may require months of strategic planning.
These guidelines and processes should then be communicated to students as soon as they have been established to avoid the progression of any worries or uncertainty.
Many countries will have issued advice on how institutions can reopen safely and, as this may differ according to the rate of infection in each area, so keeping a close eye on how these guidelines may evolve is crucial.
There are several key areas that need to be addressed ahead of students returning to campus.
While there is much that is still not fully understood about the coronavirus, what is certain is the role social distancing plays in reducing the chance of infection.
Advice from the World Health Organization (WHO) is to “maintain at least one meter (three feet) distance between yourself and others.”
The general idea is that, in maintaining a good distance, this reduces the chance that the virus will be passed on through liquid droplets expelled via coughing, sneezing, or talking.
For universities, this means regularly reminding staff and students, such as via emails, social media, and campus signage, of the importance of maintaining a safe distance from one another.
WHO also advises people to avoid crowds, as “you are more likely to come into close contact with someone that has COVID-19 and it’s more difficult to maintain a physical distance of one meter (three feet).”
As a result, many universities have shifted in-person events online for the time being, such as all introductory events that take place in the first few weeks of term.
Your institution should ensure that all staff and students are aware of these social distancing measures, ensuring that they comply with them and that their fears are assuaged.
Cleanliness and hygiene
It’s also accepted that the virus can live on surfaces and be transmitted by physical contact.
As a result, one of the first pieces of universally accepted advice presented by the scientific community was to maintain good personal hygiene and to keep environments clean.
For example, advice by the Australian Government Department of Health is to “wash your hands often with soap and water”, and to “clean and disinfect surfaces you use often such as benchtops, desks, and doorknobs.”
To prepare for the return of students to campus, the University of New South Wales in Australia has followed government advice and “upgraded its cleaning standards above its regular operations.”
The university will be “using bleach-based hospital-grade disinfectant cleaning products throughout the university,” as well as installing many hand-sanitizer stations and training cleaning staff in coronavirus–standard cleaning techniques.
By adopting such strict measures, returning and new students will be reassured and comfortable as they navigate campus in this new normal.
Additional safety measures
The wearing of masks is a crucial component in the safe return to campus for students and staff.
While the use of a mask alone is not enough to stop the spread of the virus, wearing one while maintaining social distancing and practicing strict hygiene can have a significant impact.
Cardiff University in Wales recently announced that it will ask all staff and students to wear a mask while indoors.
The university’s vice chancellor, Professor Colin Riordan said, “we will ask people to wear masks inside where they are with people not from their household. The evidence is in favor of doing that.”
According to the Financial Times, whether a person is indoors or outdoors has a huge impact on whether the virus will spread.
They write that, according to Muge Cevik, a clinician and researcher in virology at the University of St Andrews, the environment that a person is in “matters a lot.”
He continued, “if you do the same gathering indoors as outdoors, the indoor version will be much more high risk.”
Given this, universities across the globe have been finding innovative methods of utilizing the outdoors as part of the higher education experience.
Mercy College in New York will be ensuring all their indoor on-campus dining will be set at 50% capacity, as well as offering more opportunities for “takeout and outdoor seating.”
Other ideas for utilizing outdoor space later in the term include outdoor and socially distanced theater, lectures, and talks where possible.
“Test, test, test,” was the message given by WHO’s Director General at the media briefing on COVID-19 in mid-March.
When countries have more clarity on who is infected at a given time, officials can spot clusters of infection faster and quickly impose lockdowns.
It also means that those infected can receive the right healthcare and self-isolate in order to prevent further infections.
When campuses reopen, testing staff and students will play a huge role in reducing the spread of the infection in their area.
The international business school, HEC Paris, released a statement in which they state: “Because zones where the virus is actively circulating have expanded and for everyone’s well-being, HEC Paris has decided to extend the obligation of completing a PCR COVID-19 test prior to coming to campus for all students, regardless of whether they are living in residence or off campus, no matter where they are arriving from, including residents of France.”
In addition to mask wearing, Cardiff University also explained that “regular sample COVID-19 tests will be carried out before they come on campus when Cardiff University starts next term.”
It’s not only the physical health of students that needs to be closely observed in the approaching academic year, but also their mental health.
Despite all the measures that universities will be taking to protect students from the coronavirus, many other factors, such as the health of family and friends, increased isolation, and concerns about the future, will still weigh on the minds of students.
It’s the responsibility of universities to ensure that, despite limitations set upon in-person contact, mental health services are still made available to students.
Virtual counselling sessions, such as via video calls, are a great solution to providing mental health support in this unsettling period.
For more information on how universities and prospective international students are responding to the coronavirus crisis, please see our latest report: The Coronavirus Crisis and the Future of Higher Education.