COVID Communications Toolkit: Planning for Fall

by Rachel Bishop | June 18, 2020
COVID Communications Toolkit: Planning for Fall

Part one of a three-part series that offers strategies, guides, checklists, and helpful tips on communications planning for fall. View part two on key audiences and messages here. View part three on optimizing and executing your plan here.

The Ultimate Communications Planning Guide for Fall

COVID-19 has left many institutions and students alike wondering what’s next. Students question whether they will be able to return to campus this fall. Many administrators are waiting for guidance from state leaders before finalizing plans for fall. Whether your campus will return in the fall for in-person instruction, continue to offer virtual instruction, or offer some combination of the two, there is one major task at hand that will be critical to success: communications planning.

To help students make a seamless transition to the fall semester, institutions need to begin communicating about plans as soon as possible. For now, the message you send to students and families might be, "We don't know what fall will look like yet." And that's okay. You're still keeping your students and families informed through the planning process. In turn, students will know where their institution stands in the decision-making process. Further, students will know to expect further directions from their institution, forming a captive audience.

communications planning for fallCrafting a strong communications plan to keep students informed is a uniquely challenging task, given the circumstances of the creation of the plan: a global pandemic. To help, over the next few weeks, Signal Vine will release a toolkit packed with guides, checklists, and other resources to help you with your communications planning for fall. Whether your institution plans to return to on-campus learning, continue with virtual learning, or use a combination of the two, the toolkit will help with your communications planning for fall. Also, we’ll host a webinar workshop series to talk about each toolkit component. The first webinar, which discusses the resources and information contained in this blog, can be viewed here.

Creating a roadmap

Staff are likely wondering what challenges lie ahead as they plan for fall. Some of these concerns might include the following:

  • finding out what steps are needed to reopen, remain virtual, or use a hybrid approach
  • keeping students and families informed about these steps
  • guiding students to take needed actions
  • providing support for any resistance or challenges
  • identifying students that are not compliant
  • helping first-year students transition to the virtual or on-campus environment while following state guidelines
  • keeping students excited about their college experience

We’ll cover many of these concerns in the coming weeks in our toolkit. For now, we’ll focus on creating a communications plan for fall.

Communications planning for fall

communications planning for fall

No matter what your institution decides to do this fall, it’s likely that staff and students alike will need to take steps they wouldn’t have to take had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened. For instance, students may need to complete new COVID-related forms or waivers. Staff may need to establish new protocols to return to campus. Further, staff might need to get buy-in from students and families to protect against COVID-19 outbreaks if classes are in-person.

Each of these components will require staff to keep their campus communities informed. Already, messaging through COVID has required institutions to cut through the noise and confusion with clear, concise messaging. This will continue as students begin their fall classes. Through a communication framework of awareness, action, support, and triage, institutions can build messaging plans that move students to action. Further, it will help ease the transition to a “new normal” student experience. With a strong communications plan, there will be less risk to institutions, programs, students, and the campus community at large as the plan will ensure that all important information is delivered and actions taken to enable a safe fall semester. 

Institutions will need to use messaging that is proactive, personal, directional, supportive, and responsive. As a result, students will move through the messaging framework.

communications planning for fall

On-campus instruction

If your institution plans to return to campus, you are likely making changes to what “business as usual” will be. Depending on leadership at the institutional and state level, you might be thinking about forms and waivers, COVID testing and tracing, policy changes, and facilities access. You might also wonder how to make the transition back to campus as seamless as possible for your students. Further, you might be thinking about how to make this semester as enjoyable as possible for incoming freshmen.

Solid communication practices can make the transition to campus much easier for students. This is especially true if those students are new to campus. Planning communications ahead of time can help ensure that students and families receive all the information they need to plan for the fall semester. It’s crucial that institutions keep their campus communities, including faculty and staff members, in the loop as plans are made to return to on-campus learning.

Virtual instruction

If your institution plans to hold classes online this fall, you are likely working to prepare your virtual environment to give students the best experience possible. A major challenge you might face is giving incoming freshmen a positive experience, even though their first year of college may look differently than they’d hoped. They may have hoped to experience their first year of college on campus. In turn, institutions must figure out how to get students to buy into the idea of virtual instruction, in part to reduce summer melt.

Communication is everything here. Students, especially those who are new to the institution, need to know what to expect in the virtual environment. All students and families need to know what classes will look like this fall. They will expect helpful communications from the institution, creating a need for institutional staff to do some careful communications planning for fall.

Hybrid instruction 

If your institution plans to split between a virtual environment and on-campus instruction, you are likely working on details such as which classes will be held in-person on which days and at which locations. Further, you’re likely thinking about how to keep students safe and socially distanced when they’re on campus. Students and families very likely have these same concerns.

Keeping students and families informed through relevant communications will be crucial. For instance, you may consider using texting to segment and message biology majors and let them know how their coursework and labs will be completed. Letting students know this information far ahead of time will help calm nerves and set them up for a successful fall semester.

A campus-wide commitment

No matter how you plan to hold classes this fall, you will likely have new rules and guidelines to follow. These new rules will likely impact many, if not all, departments. Your institution’s COVID communications plan must present who will communicate with students on each channel. Using multiple channels is crucial because different audiences exist on different channels. For instance, parents and families may be more active on Facebook while students might turn to Twitter for campus news. However, different staff members can manage different channels. It’s important that leadership determine who has the most authority (in the eyes of students) and who students deem the most supportive in taking required actions.

Institution-level communication staff members might manage the website to ensure high-level policies and procedures are communicated clearly and consistently and to provide links to necessary forms. The website will be accessible to family members and external parties as they seek to provide required documents for students. Social media might push general updates to the community at large and reference the website. Division-level emails will outline the elements pointing students to the processes on the website with greater personalization, highlighting key points of contact for support and clear deadlines associated with students’ return to campus.

How texting can help

Texting is a critical method of outreach to use in these communications efforts. It raises the attention of students who haven’t complied with web/email updates by distilling the message down to the basics of what, why, and when. In turn, this drives students to action. Also, texting opens a channel for an immediate response in case students have questions. Further, texting allows institutions to proactively reach out to students. Often, students may not even realize they need help or that they’re failing to complete an important action. When institutions proactively reach out and engage students, they’re helping students get the information they need (and sometimes don’t even know they need) to take required actions and make informed decisions.

Choose your sender wisely

Choosing a sender that students will be most likely to engage with will be important for your communications strategy. This is especially true when the message requires an action from the student. Students will be more likely to take action if the message’s sender is someone they’re familiar with. Meanwhile, other campus-wide communications and announcements may come from campus leadership.

communications planning for fall

Like with all messaging, COVID messaging will need to comply with HIPPA and FERPA guidelines. Messages must refrain from specifics regarding students’ health and educational personal details. While students may respond and share these details, staff must use this as a training opportunity for students to understand what they should and shouldn’t share through various channels.

Further, with spammers and scammers also using texting to communicate with others, it’s crucial that institutions establish good texting hygiene. They must educate students on how to safely use texting. For instance, institutions might highlight the importance of when to share certain information and how to verify a sender. This will help students keep their privacy and data safe.

Learn more

We have hosted a webinar to discuss how to use the COVID communications toolkit components we’ve released in part one of this series, including the self-assessment and COVID messaging checklist. You can watch the webinar recording here.

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