COVID-19 Campus Reopening Mistakes and Victories


COVID-19 Campus Reopening Mistakes and Victories

EAB’s Tess Frenzel and Michael Fischer discuss what is going well or poorly across the 80 percent of colleges that welcomed at least some students, faculty, and staff back to campus this fall. These institutions knew they would face challenges to both the physical and mental health of everyone across their campus communities.

Tess and Michael explore the most effective strategies university leaders are employing to manage these challenges and offer tips on how to make improvements in several critical areas before the spring semester begins.

They also encourage schools to remain focused and vigilant even after the first vaccine is approved rather than being lulled into complacency.



0:00:11.5 Matt Pellish: From EAB, I’m Matt Pellish, and this is Office Hours. This week, drug maker Pfizer made headline news with announcement of a potential COVID-19 vaccine that is seen as more than 90% effective. I think we can all agree, this is exactly the kind of news we’ve been looking forward to since the pandemic began, and it’s good to feel excited, but it’s not the answer yet as college and university leaders look ahead of the spring. On today’s episode, EAB’s Tess Frenzel and Michael Fischer are gonna help us understand the task at hand. They’ll walk us through the fall semester repopulation, what has gone well, what’s gone poorly across the roughly 80% or so schools that brought back some students, faculty and staff, and they’re gonna talk about the challenges of the physical, the mental health of everyone across the campus community, and what are some of the effective strategies leaders are employing to manage them. Finally, we’re gonna look to the spring semester in 2021 and some of the improvements that can be made in areas like low-risk social activities for students or dashboards for transparent campus response, and of course, even more testing. Thanks for listening, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.


0:01:20.1 Michael Fischer: My name is Michael Fischer, and I am pleased to be joined today by one of my research colleagues, Tess Frenzel. Tess, thanks for being here.

0:01:28.9 Tess Frenzel: Thank you for having me.

0:01:31.7 MF: Now, Tess, it’s getting colder outside and darker. And unfortunately, we are seeing cases on the rise in the United States, so it’s likely that this winter will be some isolations and quarantine. So I’m curious to hear from you or your lessons from the spring lockdowns that you’re hoping to make sure you can apply over the next couple of months.

0:01:54.3 TF: Yeah, absolutely. So I think in the spirit of research, I invested in a book called, The Little Book of Hygge, which is about Nordic traditions to stay cozy in the cold and winter months, which I stole some of them during the summer, a lot of baking, a lot of blankets, but definitely planning on bringing that into the colder weather as we gear up for that.

0:02:18.1 MF: I think it’s a great idea. I certainly am trying to put a routine for exercise because without being able to walk outside when it’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit, I’m afraid that the pounds are going to add up. But speaking out of lessons learned and applying forward, we’ve had a lot of universities over this fall go through repopulation efforts and we’re hoping to discuss today what was learned, what were the experiences for students, staff and faculty, and what can be taken forward as we think about the spring semester in 2021. In general, in the United States, about 80% of institutions had at least one face-to-face class over the fall as part of the repopulation, and we’re bringing students back to campus. In general, about 230,000 plus cases have been associated with universities, which is about 2% of the total case load in the United States as the time of this recording. But in general, most of those cases have been relatively mild and there have been fortunately very few deaths or major hospitalizations associated with universities. Tess, you work a lot with our Student Affairs leaders, what has been the student response to coming back to campus this fall? What are the students’ opinions been? What have been their opportunities? What have been their challenges?

0:03:43.4 TF: Absolutely. Well, I think that, to your point, a lot of students are very grateful to, in general, feel pretty safe on their campuses, and there are obviously some exceptions where there have been very serious breakouts, but in terms of COVID cases, institutions have gotten very good at implementing particularly mask wearing on campus, students are quick to comply to that. There’s a lot more difficulty around encouraging students to physically distance and socially distance, especially when they live off campus and compounding that when you are physical distancing and social distancing, students are feeling a lot more lonely and anxious on campus than we’ve seen in years past.

0:04:27.5 MF: What are some examples of institutions that have done a really good job or have nearly done everything right when it comes to supporting students in the transition back to campus and providing them with the right resources to get them through these last few months?

0:04:44.1 TF: Yeah, I think part of it has a lot to do with your campus structure, some of the things are outside of institutions’ control. We’ve seen smaller institutions like Amherst College and Bowdoin really able to create a bubble on their campuses where there is a very, very low case count, and so students are able to have a little more freedom in interacting with each other on campus, off campus to being able to go to local businesses and have more of those casual one-on-one interactions that help build a stronger sense of community. I do think we’ve seen institutions get really creative though, with trying to support their students, which has been really wonderful to see institutions like the University of Notre Dame have made big investments in making sure that students can continue to interact with each other outside through heat warmers or organizing outdoor activities that mark on the ground how far you need to stay away from one another, as well as partnering with student groups and organizations to make sure they can still hold their activities.

0:05:48.5 MF: It seems to be this idea of creating an alternate campus experience. People come to campus because they are not just there for the academics, but because they’re there for the memories, for the friendships or the relationships that come from being in close proximity and surrounded by such interesting people and such resources. If you can’t do that in person as much because of concerns around disease spread and wanting to maintain that social distancing, then you have to invest in virtual digital or safely monitored alternatives for that. I think of Alvernia University in Pennsylvania has done a lot of experimentation with what kinds of things will be successful for students, and one of their most popular is having a drive-in movie once a week. And students and their families and others in the community will drive up and they have a blow-up projector screen that they put films on, but they also figured out using glow sticks away for those cars to order food and having faculty and staff volunteer as car hops to safely bring food back and forth from the kitchen to the cars, so that the parents and the students and the community doesn’t have to get out and potentially risk mingling in that way. So, that experimentation seems to be continuing to occur on a lot of campuses.

0:07:10.8 TF: Yeah, I love that idea. And I think that some institutions that are really seeing success and more of their virtual events have leaned on their student leaders to organize those smaller digital experiences that don’t just lead to Zoom fatigue because you’re having more one-on-one or small group conversations as opposed to just watching a panel with 200 other students online.

0:07:36.1 MF: You mentioned Zoom fatigue and earlier the problem with mental health. While COVID has largely spared students and universities from serious physical medical conditions, I think there’s no question that there’s rising concerns around anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental ailments that students and faculty and staff are dealing with. What have you seen universities do in response? What kind of conversations are they having?

0:08:07.7 TF: Yeah, I think it’s a really challenging issue, especially in an environment that so naturally lends itself to feelings of anxiety and loneliness. Active Minds, I think has done really incredible research around this topic, and one of the things that they found was 84% of students said that their mental health has worsened during COVID-19, with one enforcing that their depression significantly increased. With that being said, one of the really interesting aspects of this time is that there are also a number of institutions that have seen lower demand on their counseling centers, which has led some to question, “Is this negatively impacting mental health? Is it not?” I think because students going to the counseling center, especially in a period where you can’t really go in person isn’t actually the best indicator of whether mental health is worsening or improving on campus.

0:09:05.0 TF: One-third of students reported that they were helping their friends and peers more with mental health than in semesters past, so I think what might actually be happening on our campuses is, students are leaning more or offer their campuses as students are leaning more on their friends and family to help with the loneliness and anxiety in their experiences rather than immediately going to the counseling center or scheduling a virtual employment.

0:09:30.3 TF: In terms of how our partners need to respond to that and how institutions need to respond to that, I think that they need to start providing more resources to students and faculty that often serve as a type of first responders in mental health situations, to helping those individuals connect their peers and their students with counseling resources on campus, as well as just putting more focus on wellness in general. You mentioned that physical activity is really important during this time, and Active Minds also found that 56% of students are exercising less than ever before. We’ve seen a lot of institutions start partnering with their coaches and athletic teams to host classes online, which I think is a great idea for a way that you can have a virtual, safely distant experience, but still help students work on these aspects of their wellness that really do contribute to improving anxiety.

0:10:27.8 MF: It certainly is impossible to know when exactly this pandemic will end, but the prioritization of resources towards mental health and well-being seems to me like it will have extreme value. The data even before the pandemic suggested that the generations coming to campus now, Generation Z, and the generation thereafter, Gen Alpha, are continuing to see increased rates of those mental health issues so the early investments now will allow you to support your campus body, your student body for the years and decades to come, and the challenges that we know are in the pipeline, with the work that we at EAB are doing with K-12 school districts and independent schools. But it’s not just about supporting mental health, but it’s about resiliency and wellness, proactively getting ahead of the anxieties and stresses and negative ailments and building people up to be able to naturally have methods to resist and work collectively through these problems.

0:11:30.4 TF: Yeah, absolutely. And I also think it’s important to recognize that increased anxiety is not just happening among our students, it’s also happening among our faculty and staff, they’re dealing with increased workloads, new environments where they’re working from home or working in campuses where they might be very stressed about meeting with students when previously that was one of their favorite parts of their job.

0:11:55.0 MF: Oh, absolutely, and I think one thing we’ve seen is that one of the major stress points for faculty is teaching in a classroom. If there are face-to-face classes or the institution would like some of the asynchronous instruction to be recorded in campus spaces so that you can have access to white boards or technology, it can be very stressful for faculty who may be older, who may have health conditions to be in that environment. One institution we know of, Northland College, actually had third-party health inspectors walk through their classrooms and certify them as having all the necessary precautions and investments made, that they had changed the HVAC filters, that they had spaced the desks and they put Plexiglass in the right areas, and that independent check allowed faculty to have a lot more confidence that the classrooms were correctly arranged to be instructed during a pandemic time.

0:12:53.0 MF: We talked a lot about supporting students and staff, I think that this naturally transitions to another major area where universities have invested a lot and learned a lot over this fall, which is about communicating with campus, communicating with students, with their families, with staff and faculty, but also with the wider campus community, the neighborhood, local government officials, local journalists. What have you heard institutions say when it comes to communication? Or, where have they struggled when it comes to being able to keep those lines of communication open?

0:13:29.5 TF: Yeah, I think one of the most difficult parts of this area is that so many institutional leaders are drinking from a fire hose, that communication sometimes falls by the wayside. They’re in meetings 24/7, and they forget that there are a whole bunch of students and staff and faculty who aren’t aware of the efforts the institution is making to try to make sure that their community is safe. I think some of the most effective strategies we’ve seen from institutions are COVID-19 dashboards as the number one resource you need to make sure your institution is working on. Michael, I know you’ve done a ton of research around COVID-19 dashboards and what works and what doesn’t.

0:14:09.4 MF: Yeah, it’s important alongside a website with having FAQs and regular announcements of where the institution stands, but displaying the data transparently so that campus constituents know how much you’re testing, how many positive cases, how quickly were they identified, but also leveraging some KPIs and other actionable triggers to indicate, Okay, what’s the threshold for us moving into another stage or locking down? Or, heaven forbid, having to send students home. So that it’s clear when you’ve reached those stages, that the institution has a plan in place and there can be growing confidence that all the different scenarios that could play out over the uncertain future have been mapped out and prepared for by leaders on campus.

0:15:00.1 MF: But I think the other side that coin is, you can be as transparent and provide as much data as you want, but it gets undermined when leaders on campus don’t practice what they preach. There have been, unfortunately, numerous examples of insensitivity when it comes to announcements, photos of senior leaders out for a nice walk while the rest of campus is quarantined because of the moving period or language that was insensitive to the concerns that students or faculty might have. And given how much trust university leaders brought into this crisis, I think The Chronicle found that 86% of students had high levels of confidence in their institutional leaders before the pandemic began, that just completely knocks the knees out of a lot of the work that’s been done over the summer and fall.

0:15:54.6 TF: Absolutely. I think institutional leaders have learned some difficult lessons on never asking their students to do something they wouldn’t be willing to go through themselves. I know that one of the colleges we were really impressed by had a university president actually stay in the dorm room and eat the food that the students were eating more in quarantine as a way of communicating, “I would never ask you to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do. We’re in this together.” And that not only instilled confidence in students, it also instilled confidence in parents who are experiencing extreme levels of anxiety in sending their students away and then being worried that they’re going to get sick and then be trapped in the dorm and without anyone checking in on them.

0:16:38.5 MF: Yeah, if there’s enough cases happening in the community that your quarantine isolation units are regularly filled, I think I would certainly recommend having a senior executive rotate the roux being in quarantine isolation. So you have that element of solidarity, but also to help elevate and rapidly respond to pain points and issues that you find. If you find that the food delivery issue is taking place and students aren’t getting as much warm food as they were promised, it’s going to be very noticeable for that provost, for that assistant vice president to raise that red flag very quickly, because they also got a cold dinner that evening alongside the students and other members of the community who might be in quarantine.

0:17:28.7 TF: Yeah. Absolutely.

0:17:31.7 MF: Quarantine isolation is a place where a lot of institutions have had to experiment this fall, and even though many institutions are planning to keep classes entirely online or extend their winter break between Thanksgiving and early February, when we’re anticipating the current wave might be the worst in the United States, at least, there’s still a lot that will need to be done to ensure that quarantine isolation units are suitable for students and other members of the community to partake in.

0:18:07.4 MF: I know, I can think of some of the examples of some of the pain points that quarantine isolation has come up: Lack of access to the outdoors, lack of programmatic activity. I think early on, there were some challenges around enforcement and around communication of expectations, they have largely been addressed, but now it’s about making those quarantine isolation units VIP experiences, so that students who maybe got a test separate from the institution don’t feel discouraged from reporting that, so that they are stuck in a cardboard box with very little to offer compared to the free life that they would live outside of the institution.

0:18:50.0 TF: Absolutely, I also think it’s an opportunity to try to build that sense of community we were talking about earlier. One of the things we heard that I loved was Georgia Tech University’s student group, called SMILE, built care packages for its students that just had motivational messages, snacks, tea packets, just kind of helps students get through that period of two weeks or more where they were feeling very isolated. I think NC State and Syracuse University are also ahead of the curve here. NC State was offering virtual drop-in spaces for students who were quarantining to help them combat loneliness through connecting virtually with other students in the dorm who are also stuck in their rooms, and I think Syracuse University also made sure that isolated students got a daily call from a campus nurse every day, and I think it’s those types of steps that help students in a really difficult situation, feel like their institution hasn’t forgotten about them and they’re still very much being supported despite having to be alone.

0:19:52.2 MF: Now for every one student that’s in quarantine isolation, you have 10, 100, 1000 students potentially on or around campus who may have asymptomatic cases or maybe potentially exposed, and that’s led to the two-pronged approach of having testing and doing social distancing, masking, other types of preventative measures, these were all the rage and all the focus during the summer, and so a lot was already put in place going into the fall, and so as we look back on the fall and think about what might need to be changed in the spring. Let’s start with testing. Tess, how would you describe students’ general reaction to testing and how institutions position testing and present it to their campus constituents?

0:20:42.4 TF: I mean I think it’s important to focus the framing of testing, not in just a punitive we need to test you, because we’re not sure people are distancing or not, instead of sort of a community responsibility and also a way to make sure that students can gain more privileges. Say things like, as long as our case count is low, we’re going to be able to move to phase two or phase three of reopening where students can start having more ability to visit places off-campus or meet with students in slightly larger groups because it’s safer. So I think that messaging is really important. I also think it’s important to flag though, and I’m sure many institutions have heard this before, but you can’t just be testing students who are asymptomatic. The gold standard across institutions that we’ve seen that have managed to keep their case count the lowest are institutions that are testing all students, even if they’re asymptomatic regularly, as often as every week or every two weeks.

0:21:42.7 MF: Yeah, there’s a spectrum of testing, and I think every institution should re-evaluate what their testing regime looks like going into the spring, spring semester in 2021 compared to the fall, ’cause a lot has changed, testing has gotten cheaper. There’s more supplies of testing, there are more options and new methods, things like waste water testing, to be able to identify individual dorms or residence halls where there’s been an outbreak and then be able to quarantine those spaces, that’s being done. Places like the Utah State and the University of Arizona, the University of Illinois in Kansas have developed their own types of testing that have allowed to extend out there, and even if you don’t think you have the resources to be able to test every student, implementing things like randomized testing, or sort of testing in waves can be ways of a more cost-effective to still get that leverage and sense of how the community as a whole is doing when it comes to COVID spread as opposed to just seeing the cases when they already reached the point where they’re symptomatic and potentially spreading it to their roommates, their professors, their classmates, etcetera.

0:22:54.9 MF: I think as well, this ties naturally into the question of masking and social distancing. At the beginning, Tess, you mentioned things on campus, generally have been good, things off-campus, a little bit more of a struggle. I suspect that there are some specific characteristics of a university that would make social distancing and masking harder for them to manage. One that immediately comes to mind is Greek life. I would imagine that it’s a little more challenging to manage student parties when you have a very active Greek life surrounding your campus.

0:23:29.6 TF: Yeah, absolutely, we’ve seen that institutions that don’t have Greek life where a majority of students are living on campus. It’s a lot easier to make sure that students are abiding by distancing guidelines and also improving town-gown relationships. If there are a lot of off-campus parties that people in town are seeing, it’s really difficult to tell them that your institution is doing a good job in keeping the students and the community safe. One of the messaging strategies we’ve seen that has been effective is making sure that messages around distancing aren’t just coming from institutional leadership, but are coming from students themselves.

0:24:12.2 TF: Early last fall, we saw a lot of institutions really make a proactive effort to partner with student leaders both formal student leaders like a president of a student government and captains of sports teams, and informal student leaders who were nominated by faculty and staff on campus to really spearhead distancing, messaging both on and off campus. We’ve seen institutions speak with Instagram influencers, especially at larger public universities to talk about why distancing is important, not just for you, but for everyone in your entire campus community, so frontline staff, professors, your favorite sandwich shop or people who work there, that sort of community responsibility messaging has shown to be significantly more effective than just punitive follow these guidelines because we told you to.

0:25:07.3 MF: Absolutely. I also think that a lot of institutions have benefited from tying testing, quarantine isolation and social distancing and masking to institutional mission. In fact, it seems that institutions that have a sort of a social good or common good mission that’s natural to their identity, religious institutions, historically black colleges and universities, the military academies, schools that have a strong focus on environmental or social justice, have been able to make the case to their students that all the sacrifices that they’re making, all the efforts that they’re taking in is part of the University’s commitment to living out that identity and part of what it means to be a member of this campus community, and even institutions that don’t directly have one of those identities, I think can point to that common good and the nature of campus’ family, the nature of campus’ community, as a reason to drive home that idea that all these sacrifices are worth it so we can have the experience that we have here however limited and frustrating at times it might be.

0:26:17.4 TF: And we have heard from every institution we’ve spoken to, students that are on campus do really want to be there. They know that these semesters can’t be an entirely normal college experience, but most students really do wanna be able to have this privilege of being able to take a class in person or see their friends from school, and I think institutions really wanna offer that as well as we’re figuring out how we can do that going into the next semester as well as we can, taking all the lessons we’ve learned from the past few months is gonna be really critical.

0:26:51.3 MF: And so we’ve talked through some major lessons learned from the fall, lessons around supporting students and faculty, lessons around communication and trust, lessons around preventing disease spread and building a culture of masking and social distancing. Let’s conclude by looking at the future at the spring and 2021 as a whole, what are you getting a sense of tests of challenges that universities might be facing in the spring that maybe didn’t come up as much during the fall, are there any… Or is it gonna replay basically the same as it was in the fall?

0:27:28.1 TF: I mean I think the good news is a lot of the lessons we learned from the past semester, we can take into the coming months, messaging around distancing, practicing what you preach, focusing on safety and community responsibility, all of those lessons are still going to apply this semester. I think the biggest challenge that we’re going to see is one of the positives of last semester, that there was a period, especially during the summer, where you were seeing case counts in, especially in the northeast, communities in the United States go down. While now going into the winter, cases are going up across most of the United States as well as in Europe, kind of across the world. So I think institutions need to be prepared for taking a really hard look at where their institution is located and realistically how safe they’re going to be able to keep their students if they do choose to bring them back on campus. I would say that’s one of the biggest challenges.

0:28:27.8 MF: And frankly, they’re… In most of the United States, at least, there isn’t the same political appetite for strict lockdowns at the community level that there was in the spring, even as cases have gotten larger and higher numbers than we had back then with a few exceptions, but it’s probably likely that your university is gonna be located in area where the community itself may accidentally undermine a lot of the strict measures that you’re trying to put on campus in order to keep students safe and keep students on campus. I also suspect in some of the work and research that I’ve done looking at the potential COVID vaccines, that when a vaccine is announced, whenever that takes place, there are over a dozen now in final phase testing in the United States, United kingdom, in other parts of the world that just the fact that there’s an announcement may lead to a drop in social distancing and masking in vigilance.

0:29:28.0 MF: And especially as the first couple of waves of individuals are vaccinated, students may think that there is less risk now, even though it will take a very long time for the threshold to be reached, to the number of people vaccinated to actually reach a level of safety and security were some of the measures that we’re taking can be relaxed and reduced, so being ahead of that in your communication, making sure that everyone on campus knows that even when good news comes out that we have to maintain the same course so that we don’t take a bad outcome and sort of undermine the success that we have by implementing these medical advances.

0:30:10.8 TF: Yeah.

0:30:12.3 MF: This has been a fantastic conversation. Tess, any last thoughts before we wrap up today?

0:30:19.6 TF: No, I think we really covered a lot of really important grounds, so thank you so much again for taking the time to speak with me, and I also just wanna take a quick moment to think about all the institutional leaders and staff and faculty, we know that this has been a really challenging semester, and the work you’re doing is important, and even though there are a lot of challenges ahead, I think the past couple of months have shown that our institutions are really resilient, and there is a lot of progress that can be made on these really challenging times.

0:30:52.0 MF: I think that sums up everything very well. Tess, thank you for being with me today. And thank you all for joining us on EAB Office Hours.


0:31:08.1 MP: Thanks again for listening. Join us next week when I’ll be joined by EAB’s Michael Koppenheffer to talk about how employers have shifted campus recruiting efforts, now that the in-person job fair, remember in field houses and campus centers? They’re a distant memory. Until then, I’m Matt Pellish for Office Hours with EAB.

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