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College Communications During COVID-19

Published on September 23, 2020, at 9:50 p.m.
by Tess Hensley.

As COVID-19 made its way into the United States earlier this year, colleges were suddenly front-page news: Who was shutting down first, and for how long? Students, faculty and administrators scrambled to adjust their spring semester plans, and as a new semester began this fall, many met their biggest test yet. The majority decided it was safer to have a completely virtual semester. However, some have managed to offer face-to-face instruction.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

This choice has been met with mixed emotions by all, and some protests even took place as communities voiced their concerns about reopening this fall. Communicators had to explain, and in some cases defend, their institutions’ decisions. The question is, have these communication strategies passed or failed?

“The main criticisms have been regarding tone and transparency,” said Dr. Dave Remund, executive director of university communications and marketing for Drake University. Drake University is a private institution which had offered all students and all faculty the option of choosing online instruction this fall or returning to campus for face-to-face instruction; most students and faculty chose to return. “We are trying to provide clear yet detailed updates, and that can be misinterpreted at times as being cold and clinical.”

Drake University communicates key data points through updates rather than a dashboard in hopes to keep its campus community focused on the most current numbers of positive tests for COVID-19. “Senior administrators are being pointed and precise in their communication, and that is not always well-received by those who want every piece of data imaginable. By keeping people focused on what matters most, our senior administrators believe they can best reinforce the necessary behaviors that will keep campus safe and healthy,” Remund said.

Other institutions have also stepped into a new role as a public health source of information for their communities. Researchers from The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) developed a mobile app, Healthcheck, to help institutions assess symptoms and exposure history among their campus. It is now being used at college and university campuses across the state.

Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

“A couple of highly talented faculty members from the UAB School of Health Professions began assessing symptoms statewide through a another app, ‘Help Beat COVID-19’, that involved into Healthcheck,” Dr. Lori McMahon, Ph.D., dean of the UAB graduate school, said. “It became clear that a similar tool would be great for assessing coronavirus symptoms daily among college students. The partnership further developed with the UAB Department of Information Technology and the Alabama Department of Public Health, where Healthcheck became the standard for higher education institutions to use as students, faculty and staff returned to campuses across the state,” McMahon said.

One key to the universities’ responses to the community was making use of their expert physicians, as well as the deans of the schools of medicine and public health. “Having those experts be one phone call away and asking, ‘What do we need to be talking about, what do we need to be thinking, what do we need to communicate?’ and having them be so willing to help definitely assisted in forming our strategies,” McMahon said.

No matter the institution, big or small, Ron Culp, professional director of the public relations and advertising M.A. program at DePaul University, advises colleges to make the best of what they’re doing now. “Try to turn the negatives into forward-looking discussions that will better prepare future leaders to not ignore the possibilities of pandemics, social unrest and climate change,” Culp said.

Current events couldn’t be a better reference for his classes this fall. “By chance, my fall course couldn’t be more relevant — Diverse Voices in Communications. We’re studying all areas of diversity, equity and inclusion, including ageism,” Culp said. He uses Twitter to follow student insights through #DiverseVoices and #PRAD595.

Diversity is another key to success in communicating during the pandemic, according to McMahon. “UAB developed key task forces and teams who have different perspectives and who appreciate the complexity of a university and all of the stakeholders. The diversity of the leaders involved in planning and decision making was key to ensuring the communication was understandable by all groups on our campus,” McMahon said. “Having a group of people with different perspectives, who appreciate the complexity of a university and all of the stakeholders so that the communication is understandable by all groups we have to communicate with is so important,” McMahon said.

Despite the challenges of communicating in a time such as this pandemic, Dr. Remund said there is nothing more important than the work he is doing now. “The work we are doing on the communications front is vital – to helping the campus community stay safe and healthy, and also to help foster a sense of trust and togetherness. I have managed through countless crises in my career, but this is already one of the longest and certainly the most complex,” he said.

As most faculty and staff look toward the future with hope for the spring semester, there are darker speculations about which institutions will thrive in spite of COVID-19, and which ones will fall. One thing’s for certain: How colleges have communicated to their communities and students will play a key role in their fates.

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