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Communicating Through the Coronavirus: Panel Q&A

by Rachel Hicks | March 23, 2020
Communicating Through the Coronavirus: Panel Q&A

Communicating Through the Coronavirus

communicating through the Coronavirus
Click to view the webinar.

Recently, Signal Vine hosted a panel to discuss resources for higher ed pros for communicating through the Coronavirus to their campus communities. The panel, which was moderated by Brian Kathman, CEO of Signal Vine, consisted of Edward Conroy, Associate Director of Research Communication for The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice; Liz Richter, Senior Director, Division of Student Success at The University of Texas at Arlington; Alice Anne Bailey, Ph.D., Higher Education Consultant; Jesse Boeding, University of Pennsylvania Doctoral Student; and Adil Dittmer, Account Manager at Signal Vine. They discussed their tips, knowledge, and insight into how institutions can communicate with their campus communities during this unprecedented time in higher education. The webinar can be viewed here.

Below is a summary of the questions we asked our panelists and brief versions of their responses. For full responses, please view the webinar above.

Q: What is your institution's biggest concern/challenge right now in terms of campus communications? (18:30)

Liz Richter:

It's been challenging to keep up with the evolution of the campus environment. Specifically, the day-to-day changes, given the situation. Of course, our students are our main focus. But we're also busy addressing concerns of faculty and staff. We're making sure that we're keeping everyone well-informed with the most up-to-date information we have. For example, we just moved to online instruction. We're making sure that all students know that, including how to log on to access their online classes.

Q: What are some ways institutions can help students still feel connected to campus, even from a distance? (24:00)

Alice Anne Bailey, Ph.D.:

Overcommunicate. Students and families are craving information from their school right now. So, use as many communication channels as possible to make sure you are reaching everyone.

Start a weekly or twice a week podcast. (Text to announce when a new episode comes out.) Ideas could be...

  • How much do you know about X’s history, traditions, etc? (famous restaurant on- or off-campus, famous landmark on campus, the history of how a specific tradition got started, etc.)
  • Invite popular employees to guest host and talk about what they are doing while not on campus to give students a peek at who they are outside of their campus persona.
  • What is the mascot doing right now? A day in the life of X mascot during the quarantine.
  • How to handle being isolated from others (suggestions on things to do during the day, etc.). Just knowing that you are not going through this alone. We are all experiencing common reactions to this disruption.

Livestream. (Text to announce when it is scheduled and when it is starting.) Try to continue campus traditions and previously planned campus-wide events online.

Social media is good for pushing information out. But to encourage engagement and interaction, consider creating closed social media groups for enrolled students, segmented by interests (campus activities, dorms, class years, majors, etc).

Make funny videos for social and encourage students to do the same and share them with one another.

Make sure you are engaging in social listening to check in and see what students are saying on social media. (Look for hashtags that pertain to your campus and see what students are saying about how they are doing).

Consider sending out a survey asking students what their greatest concerns are right now and what they need from you. Just asking them shows that you care.

Q: What important steps should institutions be communicating to their students? (29:00)

Edward Conroy:

The most important thing we have to remember while communicating through the Coronavirus is that students are humans. Most educators are familiar with Maslow's hierarchy that states that basic needs must be met before anything else. As a result, institutions must take time to show students that they truly care about them. For example, sending an email or text saying, "We know this is scary. It's stressful for everyone," can help students. Just little things like that make a big difference for students.

Also, institutions should be proactive about student communications around all kinds of issues. For example, financial aid - a major concern for many students right now. Institutions should be proactive and communicate that if they switch to an online format, students must continue completing coursework to keep their financial aid.

Q: Which communication channels are you using to communicate information to your campus community? (36:13)

Liz:

We're doing a lot of our communications through our website and email. One of the biggest challenges in this has been striking the balance between over- and under-communicating. We're trying to get the basic info out there as quickly as possible. A good subject line to capture attention has been paramount in our use of email. We also use bullet points inside emails to emphasize what we hope students will get from that particular email. Texting has been useful as well, although we just started. It's easy to grab students' attention via text. Ultimately, we're making sure that each communication has a specific purpose.

Q: Do you have any ideas for reaching audiences that may be more challenging to reach outside of on-campus communication? (e.g. students who may lack an internet connection at home or a cellphone) (39:34)

Jesse:

If students don't have a cellphone or the internet, one thing institutions can do is simply call them on their home phones. Hopefully, this information is up-to-date in the institution's student information system. Worst case scenario, institutions can resort to sending students postcards. This gives institutions a chance to say, "We can't reach you any other way. Please let us know the best way to reach you."

Q: Who should conduct outreach to students? Should it be campus administration, faculty and staff, or a mix of these employees? (43:11)

Alice Anne:

Of course, it depends on the message. All campus departments need to be reaching out. If you email or post something important on your website, text students to direct them to read important emails and notices.

Administration:

Campus-wide announcements about closures, fee returns, extensions of deadlines, etc.

Student Services

Make sure students know that academic (and other) support services are available to them during this time and encourage students to use them. Don’t assume students know about services that are available to them.

Health Centers

Reach out with reminders about how to stay physically healthy and tips for keeping good mental health. Also, reinforce that it’s okay to reach out to someone if you are lonely or depressed. Right now, students are literally experiencing withdrawal from their friends.

Career Services

Reach out, particularly to juniors and seniors. They are very concerned about the upcoming job market that they are about to graduate into. Working students at all levels are concerned right now about working and how to cope with the loss of wages if they are no longer able to so. (If their job was in the town by campus but they had to move home, if restaurants and movie theaters close, etc)

Faculty and Advisors

Anxiety was already a crisis on college campuses. Many students were already on a razor-thin line between work and classes and being able to pay for college as it was. Gen Z was born right at the fall of the World Trade Center, increased terrorism, school shootings, the first Great Recession. They are already so anxious, and COIVD-19 is making a bad situation worse. 

The oncoming fiscal crisis is leading to a lot of anxiety among college students. Will there be jobs for them when they graduate? If they or their parents get laid off, how are they going to pay for college? If their parents’ college savings accounts just got wiped out, will they still be able to go to college?

They are also anxious about whether they will get the virus, if a loved one will, etc.

Students need to receive reassuring messages from professors and advisors. Make sure that all professors are checking in on their students—not just whether or not they need academic help, but just a check in to ask “are you okay?” and “how are you feeling?” and “what is worrying you right now,” etc.

Offer training ASAP to faculty on active and responsive listening if they need help brushing up their social and interpersonal skills. Also, train them on cultural competency. Don’t advise students to order things from Amazon, etc. Students might not have the resources to throw money at a problem to fix it. Respect different cultural values. Students at home might be stuck providing child care for younger siblings so a parent can work. That might impact the time in their day to study and attend class.

Students need to hear the following (Schlossberg’s five dimensions of mattering):

Attention:

The feeling that one is noticed and their feelings are personally acknowledged.

Importance:

The belief that one is cared about as a person.

Ego Extension:

The feeling that someone else is proud of them.

Dependence:

The feeling of being needed. (They contribute good points to the class discussion, etc.)

Appreciation:

The feeling that one’s efforts are appreciated by others.

Q: Where should campuses direct students with food or housing insecurities to go for help locally? (48:49)

Edward:

The answer to this question is changing by the day. Places are shutting down daily. It's just the reality of the situation. As these places shut down, students have to be redirected. 

If possible, institutions may consider bagging up food for students to collect - all while practicing social distancing, of course. This is a way to ensure that students are still getting food during the crisis.

Next, I'd recommend encouraging students to apply for SNAP benefits. Whether they're eligible depends on each state's criteria, but many students are eligible for SNAP. This is especially true for students who have work-study and were intending to work for the semester, even if they aren't working now. We're seeing an increase in students who meet the eligibility criteria for SNAP.

Finally, I recommend institutions network to find local resources for students. If no one in a school's network can help, perhaps those people know where to go. It's all about finding as many resources as possible in communities.

Q: Do you house information on the Coronavirus specific to your institution on your website? If so, what kinds of information do you include for your campus communities? (56:31)

Liz:

We have a message bar at the top of the homepage that links directly to our institution's Coronavirus updates. We also encourage students, staff, and faculty to be aware of updates from the CDC. On the website, we also house announcements, such as information about online classes, commencement updates, etc.

We're also careful to include staff in our updates. They need to know how long we plan to telecommute and to put resources for their students in their hands as soon as we get them.

Q: From a student's perspective, what are some things you are noticing about campus communications at this time? (1:00:55)

Jesse:

Overall, institutions seem to be doing a great job of providing updates and being transparent in all this. We are just in such a state of flux right now. I've noticed, as a student, the more segmenting institutions do, the better. For example, communicating information relevant to seniors to those seniors is better than sending blasts that may not be relevant to some students. This helps ensure that the right students get the right info as it pertains to them.

Q: We know that feelings of isolation are a major concern for today's students in general. This is amplified by disruptions in class due to the virus as well as social distancing practices. How can institutions combat this? (1:05:27)

Alice Anne:

All of this will depend on institution size. Obviously, some things will be easier for small colleges to do. Some approaches will be better suited to larger institutions.

Encourage student clubs and interest groups to continue to meet regularly via Zoom or other online, interactive platforms. Make sure that you are making online platforms available to them and they know they can use them.

Encourage faculty to not just teach online, but to turn on their video (and for students to as well) so students can at least see their professors and hopefully one another via video. Seeing one another helps you feel less lonely. If courses are asynchronous, encourage faculty to include at least one synchronous session a week.

Encourage help-seeking! Reinforce with constant messaging to let students know you want them to reach out to you with questions and requests for support. Communicate that feelings of being anxious, feeling alone, and not knowing what to do are normal and to be expected during times of crisis.

Consider modeling this behavior by writing an article, having a webinar on how a specific, well-known person on your campus (or otherwise) went through a depressive episode, etc., and how they handled it, asked for help, etc.

The great thing about Signal Vine's AI tool is that you can send mass texts, but students can text back with individual concerns. A two-way conversation can be handled by AI back and forth up to a point. Monitor these. Once the questions become specific, if you have a student who is in a crisis, work to connect them wither either a campus counselor or public mental health services in their local area.

Q: How are you changing your communication patterns for working with admitted or incoming students? (1:10:01)

Liz:

Truly, everyone in our recruitment department is scratching their head. Our visitor center is closed and we can't have people on campus. Of course, it's hard to sell an institution to prospects when those prospects can't even see it.

We're partnering with our local community colleges and letting students know that we're still open for business, even though campus itself is closed. We're also in touch with our incoming students via email to let them know about upcoming virtual orientation sessions. While this used to merely be an option, virtual attendance is mandatory now.

Q: Do you have any resources for students nationwide that institutions may share with their students? (1:13:04)

Edward:

Yes. We are often adding new resources often to our website. We have resources for students as well as the institutions that serve them.

Audience Q&A

Q: What strategies are being used to communicate with students if they aren't checking email? We don't have access to our students' phone numbers for texting, so I'm excited to hear what others are doing.

Alice Anne:

Reach out via social media. Remember, not all students are on all platforms. Post with #hashtags that pertain to your institution (Important: look for already trending hashtags that pertain to your institution) on as many platforms as possible - Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook (more relevant for adult learners), Twitter, Reddit, etc. Post a caring-toned note stating you are checking in on them and want to hear about their needs. Also, include a link that directs students to a specific page on your website. On that page, include a form for current students that asks them to share their mobile number.

Jesse:

Consider working with your senior administration to create the opportunity for students to opt into a texting plan. You will be surprised how many of us want to have specific updates on things that are important to us: registration, financial aid, new class options, and the ability to connect with an advisor.

If you can't do texting, please set up a portal that I as a student can set up and signal to the institution what kinds of information that I am seeking while simultaneously having things added to my "to-do" list that I have to do... not things that you think that I should do but that are critical to my student status.

Q: I'm a recruiter. Without knowing when advising appointments will be and how we will do them...what is my role right now? How do I bring in potential students without being on campus and giving tours or having dates for advising to schedule?

Alice Anne:

Virtual tours are great. Almost all schools have video campus tours posted on their website. 

Conduct your 1:1 interviews/advising sessions via Zoom or GoToMeeting.

Host a weekly podcast that talks about all the ways your school is unique and amazing! Talk about campus traditions and landmarks, etc., so students start to feel like they are a part of the campus community.

Host Livestream events on social media. Make sure that participants can ask questions that you can answer live. Do the same with webinars.

Use your current student ambassadors as much as you can on Livestream events. Have them make podcasts, short videos that you can post on your website and social media talking about what they love about your institution, short social videos, social media posts, etc. If you don’t have access to student ambassadors, turn to recent graduates who work in your office.

Include a webchat function on your website for prospective students.

Text them to keep them engaged with you and so students can ask you questions.

Let them know you care!

Jesse:

This is a huge opportunity. Now that students are at home, we want to be able to connect with people. Allow us to schedule times with you (via Calendly or some other easy to use format) and then send them a zoom or collab link and have the conversation virtually. They still want access to you.

Create an opportunity for them to want to talk to you. Host topic-specific Facebook chats so I can hop on and ask questions or take my questions offline in follow up.

Consider creating opportunities to have students start earlier. Can they take a college class this summer if this COVID sequestration continues?

Sample messages

During the panel, Signal Vine Account Manager Adil Dittmer walked attendees through various messages that the Signal Vine team has worked with customers to create to enable effective communications to students during this time. Below, we've included these texts along with commentary from Adil on what makes each effective.

Help students find the right housing

communicating through the Coronavirus

In this example, we need to state important housing changes to all the students who left campus for Spring Break. The first text message clearly states WHO is reaching out, WHY this text is important, and ends with a clear CALL TO ACTION. This text also lets students know that there will be several questions forthcoming (in a survey format), which improves the chances that students will stay engaged through the entire survey.

The initial text helps identify which students need support, identifying alternative housing arrangements. The text asks for a “Yes or No” response, and Signal Vine is able to understand the “Yeah” response as a synonym for “Yes.” The platform captures this response into this student’s personal profile, and once the majority of students respond, we will pull a data report of all the students’ answers to determine who needs follow up.

Finally, once the platform collects the response to “Yes,” an automated response triggers the next text about whether or not this student needs help accessing the internet off-campus. We continue asking as many questions as we need in this survey format so that we’re collecting relevant, up-to-date information on our students. This tells us how many students need support, and allows us to properly segment follow up with the appropriate resources depending on each individual student’s situation.

Announcing the extension of Spring Break

communicating through the Coronavirus

In this example, we share timely and relevant information on changes to the academic calendar. This information is also being shared through email, social media, the school website, etc. However, sending a text message makes sure we’re getting this crucial information to students through the most direct channel. We also include a link in the text message to the institutional web page with additional information so that students know where to go for updates as the situation evolves.

Calm nerves/support students' mental health

communicating through the Coronavirus

In this example, we’re noting that students are fearful of the unknown, and that we’re still here supporting them. This text enables dialogue with students and provides practical reminders for Coronavirus prevention. Stating that we don’t have all the answers is a great way to deliver an empathetic message to our students while also encouraging them to share their feelings. Many institutions are still providing mental health services remotely during this time, so this is also a great time to share a link to any relevant websites for on-campus resources that are still operating remotely.

Convey information regarding completing finals/accommodations

communicating through the Coronavirus

In this example, we are reinforcing changes to the academic calendar that students should be hearing from their faculty. These messages can be sent together, or scheduled strategically on different days to keep students in the loop with their Final Exam schedule.

It is critically important to be mindful of the ways remote instruction can impact access and equity among students, so this message also reminds students who need accommodations that they can reach out before their Finals to see what options are available. If possible, institutions should reach out proactively to those students to make sure they have everything they need to succeed during final exams.

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