Leaders in higher education are grappling with a climate of constant uncertainty as the COVID-19 epidemic continues to evolve in the United States and around the world. While plans for the upcoming semester may change, one of the few certainties for institutions is if and when students return to campus, they will need to practice physical distancing until a vaccine is widely available.
Despite its importance for a safe reopening, an EAB survey of higher education leaders in early June found that fewer than one-third of respondents were highly confident in their institution’s ability to educate and promote physical distancing among students. To help institutions build buy-in around physical distancing among this challenging population, EAB has identified three key strategies to foster a shared sense of responsibility around campus safety and increase the likelihood of students’ adherence to campus guidelines:
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Strategy #1: Proactive Communication
Institutions must prepare students for the “new normal” on campus by setting expectations for physical distancing well before students arrive. In addition to traditional communication strategies like emails from campus leadership and FAQ pages on your institution’s website, institutions can deploy interactive messaging tools like behavior pledges and online modules to help students engage directly with guidelines and information.
Institutions should also expand their outreach to key campus populations such as faculty and parents, providing them with insight into campus safety guidelines and helping them to reinforce those safety messages with students at home and in the classroom. Through early and enduring communication, institutions can equip students with the necessary knowledge to stay safe on campus and ensure students arrive with the same baseline understanding of rules and expectations.
Strategy #2: Leveraging Peer Influence
Previous research has demonstrated that students are more receptive to messages from their peers than from campus leadership. Institutions can leverage the power of peer influence by recruiting students to serve as influencers and ambassadors in their communication strategies around physical distancing. One powerful example of this strategy is from the University of Miami, which formed a public health ambassadors team to promote physical distancing on campus through modeling good behavior, serving as a resource for information on COVID-19 and campus guidelines, and providing access to hand sanitizer stations.
Strategy #3: Planning for and Managing Non-Compliance
Even institutions that adopt the most effective communication strategies must prepare for the inevitable: some students will not abide by distancing guidelines. To effectively manage noncompliance, institutions should balance enforcement measures like online reporting with amnesty policies to ensure students are not afraid to participate in contact tracing when outbreaks occur. Updating your institution’s code of conduct or partnering with community organizations to monitor off-campus activities are additional strategies to ensure distancing guidelines are being followed.