The return of students to college and university campuses across the country amid the worst public health crisis in a century has put a spotlight on two pressing challenges facing administrators and campus health officials: How to best reinforce acceptable social norms to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and how to effectively manage campus health operations under unprecedented circumstances.
The issue of enforcing social norms, such as wearing a mask and maintaining proper distancing, has split the higher education industry into two camps: Those who believe they can influence the behaviors of 18-24 year old students and those who don't. It should come as no surprise that those schools that believe they can have a positive impact on behaviors are the ones opening their campuses.
One school that seems to believe they can influence behaviors is Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But Cornell, a campus with 24,000 students and 10,000 employees, relies upon six different web sites for its health services communications, as well as email, campus signage, and secondary social media channels. COVID-19 prevention and mitigation will require a much more innovative approach to community engagement.
"The biggest challenge is trying to break through all of the noise of things that are posted across campus and on media screens and on social media," said Jennifer Austin, Director of Communications and Assistant Director of Administrative Services at Cornell Health, speaking July 29 at the American College Health Association's COVID-19 Virtual Summit. "They are deluged with things, so if you can make something that's a little bit different, you might stand a chance of having the message read in the first place."
While signs and emails may have some impact on reinforcing positive social norms that can mitigate the impact of COVID-19, those solutions do not support the entire community engagement process.
"We also need to be promoting life skills and building resilience among our students and increasing their help-seeking behavior," said Laura Santacrose, Assistant Director at Cornell Health's Skorton Center for Health Initiatives. Santacrose also said that campus health officials will need to help train students and employees "to identify people in need of care and teaching people to look out for the signs of distress among students so that we can do a better job of detecting people who may need care."
That's where essential communications platforms, like LiveSafe, come into play. They reach students wherever they are, provide two-way communications, options for anonymity, automated routing of communications to the appropriate offices, access to resources with or without an internet connection, and one-touch access to emergency services.
Michael Sorrell, the President of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, decided early on during the pandemic not to open his campus to students. He cited the inability of colleges to adequately protect their students and staff from a virus with no vaccine, as well as the challenge of controlling dangerous behaviors and enforcing social norms.
"We have a very, very high duty of care that we must extend to our students, to our faculty, and to the community that we are a part of," Sorrell said, speaking at the ACHA COVID-19 Virtual Summit. "And so we said at the outset...we will not bring people back unless there is a vaccine, or reliable testing. And we wanted to establish that upfront because those were the only ways in which we knew that people would be safe under our charge."
According to Sorrell, some universities have behaved as if they do not know their own students. "I don't know what other people think, but I have no ability to control, socially, 18 to 22 year olds," he said. "And our success on keeping people safe was going to be dependent upon managing every hour, of every day, of every week, of every month for a group of students; we just didn't see how that was feasible."
What both the Cornell and Paul Quinn College examples have in common is a lack of appreciation for the value that anonymous reporting and two-way communications via a secure mobile app brings to community engagement and prevention. People are comfortable engaging through a discreet and anonymous app on their smartphone. Two-way engagement also builds trust in the organization and generates actionable intelligence for safety, security, and COVID-19 response programs.
Campus clinics and health operations will undergo the same physical re-engineering as most other parts of college campuses. Physical separation, protective barriers, and controlling visitors will all be part of the new normal for campus health.
Anita Barkin, the former Director of Student Health Services at Carnegie Mellon University, and Former Deputy Director of North Central Public Health District in Georgia, also recommends that college health departments leverage mobile or web health surveys for any student needing to visit the clinic.
"If you can have folks screened for symptoms prior to entry -- on the phone before entry or online before entry -- that would be ideal," Barkin said. "There should be a pre-screening questionnaire that occurs prior to them even approaching that door."
That pre-screening questionnaire system should be part of your overall essential communications platform. Campus health departments must ensure that they have the essential communications capabilities in place that not only facilitate self health checks prior to entering a clinic or a building, but also a platform that will enable constant communication with those who are quarantined and an ability to leverage daily mobile check-in information to begin contact tracing.
This essential communications platform will also serve as the centerpiece for whatever protocols are put in place for daily checks to assess the student's physical and mental health during quarantine.