by Camille Perlman
In March 2020, members had to spring into action as they were directed to assist students with move-out and close residence halls due to COVID-19. And while some campuses could turn immediately to this task, some had to wait for students to return from break and then begin the process. This created many new communication challenges as staff arranged move-out along social distancing guidelines. However, many campuses now have a communication framework to use when they bring students back for next semester.
Participants are Josh Maxwell, associate director for housing and assignments at Bowling Green State University in Ohio; Demetria Bell Anderson, director of the office of engagement and inclusion at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Daniel Boyle, associate director for residence life at The University of Toledo in Ohio; and Jesse Singleton, assistant director for residence life at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Josh Maxwell: Our Office of Residence Life collaborated with the larger institution to determine when university-wide communications would first take place. Our president’s office communicated the campus-wide decisions, including the switch to remote learning and closing of residence halls to the entire campus community. Following that notification, our office emailed the on-campus population with information pertinent to that particular group of students. This information included move-out times assigned to students, what to do if they had already left campus for spring break, and confirmation that a refund plan would be shared with them as soon as it was developed.
Demetria Bell Anderson: The Office of Engagement and Inclusion at Marquette University houses the functional areas of Sorority and Fraternity Life (SFL), Campus Activities, Student Organizations and Leadership, the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, and programs and services for our historically under-represented students. In an effort to save inbox space and to focus attention at the outset of the pandemic, our team worked together to establish a consolidated newsletter that was distributed to more than 7,000 students every two weeks. We also increased our social media presence and output and updated our student engagement platform landing page with pertinent details and updates.
In addition to redirecting students to our main university COVID-19 page, our communication efforts also kept them apprised of information pertinent to student organization needs (managing end-of-year responsibilities, officer elections, student organization renewal, and the approach to planning for next year). We deployed an engagement interest survey in the first edition of the newsletter. We also included our virtual visit drop-in hours, cross-posted information shared by our campus partners, and introduced our summer programming efforts.
Our engagement and activities units moved training sessions and workshops for student leaders online. Our LGBTQ+ Resource Center created special programming that would allow for unidentifiable safer spaces for those students who were not out at home. Additionally, we worked with our SFL chapters that have houses to assess their needs in support of their efforts to safely vacate their housed chapter members.
Daniel Boyle: We rolled out a variety of communication strategies in conjunction with our marketing and communication team. The communication about the move to remote learning went to all students, staff, and faculty. This initial communication went out via official university email to all our students while most were away on spring break and told our residential students that we’d be sending out detailed move-out instructions. We followed that communication up with an email to all our residential students with a detailed move-out message and schedule. The schedule broke the move-out process down, giving each student a time and date to move out. This was also shared via social media and posted in all our residential buildings. We also shared that all checkouts would be contactless express checkouts. This meant that each student had a move-out checklist on an envelope on their residence hall door with instructions to drop keys off in the secure lock box at the hall’s front desk. Email and phone communication was provided to any student who did not check out within 48 hours of their checkout date.
Jesse Singleton: When the decision was made by the UT System to close the halls, we worked with our dean of students and student affairs leadership on our communication plan, as a lot of details regarding closing and move-out still needed to be finalized. We sent out an initial email to students letting them know the date of closing (which would be nine days from the date of the email) and that a follow-up email with essential checkout information would be sent the following day. In that follow-up email, we also outlined our process for requests to stay beyond closing for any resident who did not have a suitable alternative for housing. The most important information we felt we wanted to convey was the date of closing (explaining the change to an express checkout process to encourage social distancing) and transparent information regarding proration of housing contracts. It was also very important to us that we clearly articulated information on how a student could request to stay past closing, as anyone who did not have a suitable alternative could remain in our communities and continue their residential experience.
Anderson: Through analytics, we were able to see a greater than 50% click rate of engagement with our newsletters. Our social media footprint and analytics also demonstrated an increase in engagement with our students. With our established plan of newsletters and social media posts, we were able to be rather nimble whenever the need to pivot occurred. As the nature and necessity of information became more targeted, we were able to direct communication to address appropriate student populations: SFL student housing, student organization leaders, etc.
Maxwell: The messages were received successfully for the most part, but students and families understandably had a large number of questions. On the day after our campus announced the closure of its residence halls, our Office of Residence Life email account received and responded to more than 1,000 emails. To respond to that high volume of correspondence, our office immediately formed a larger group of staff across our housing and residence education teams to provide responses to each individual email. We started with a base template based upon the nature of their question, followed by modifying it each time based on the unique questions that students had.
One strategy we employed that saved our office a great deal of time was permanently turning on our office’s automatic reply function for our email account. We modified the automatic reply to include an FAQ containing answers to the questions we were getting the most, along with a request to email us again if the automatic reply had not answered their questions. This saved us a great deal of time responding to basic questions, allowing us to concentrate on the more complex ones.
Throughout the beginning days of the pandemic, we were in a position where we needed to change the information we sent to students as health officials learned more and more about the virus. This included changing the processes we normally used, including those for move-out. As these changes occurred, we referenced and acknowledged the changes upfront in an effort to minimize confusion on the part of students.
Boyle: The message was received quite well by most students and their families. Everyone respected physical distancing and were patient in many ways. Most people moved out accordingly and were respectful and followed directions. We changed very little in terms of our external communication to students and families, so as not to confuse students. The two primary questions we received were can we come at a different time/date, and what would the refund look like? We were very flexible in residents’ move-out time/date as long as they moved out in the 10-day window provided. We didn’t have any refund information at the time, but people were more inquisitive than upset. They understood that refund information would be coming in the upcoming weeks.
Singleton: UTEP experienced some blowback from the announcement, as it was a pretty abrupt change of course for the university. Prior to spring break, UTEP had announced that the campus intended to stay open, which included the residence halls. As the situation evolved and it became clear that we would need to close to maintain the safety of our students, we tried to convey that information in as timely a manner as possible. Understandably, there were some frustrated students and parents about the unexpected closing and the nine-day period to complete a checkout. On the day that the formal announcement went out via email, we staffed our main departmental phone line until the late evening hours to answer any calls that came in. We also had staff closely monitoring the main housing email account and either responding directly or referring questions to the appropriate professional staff member to ensure a timely response. We found that most students checked out the first weekend after the announcement.
Singleton: Through creating and disseminating some of our mass email communication, we discovered a glitch that prevented the emails from being sent to all residents through our mass email client. Thankfully, we were able to catch this issue quickly and find a new method for distributing the mass emails. In the future, we plan to put in additional checks to ensure that emails have gone out to all accounts as expected. A common perception is that students don’t read their email, but based on how they responded through this process it seemed to clarify that they do check it frequently. However, they appear to be very selective in what they deem important in their email.
We plan to share updated information on a lower density housing plan, a drive-through check-in process, and other information in the near future. We have also been conducting virtual housing tours and information sessions twice a week over the course of the summer. These sessions replace the on-campus tours that we typically give during prospective student campus visits and summer orientations.
Maxwell: Students respond well to transparency. The more upfront and direct you are with what your specific plans are, as well as what you may not have a plan for yet, the more they feel they are getting accurate and reliable information.
If you are dealing with a large residential population (our bed count sits at approximately 5,900) and need them to contact the office to inform you of their plans in some way, make sure you set up a form in advance. It sounds simple, but it makes a big difference. One of our communications said to email our office’s main email account if a student needed to stay on campus after the halls closed. This became a challenge for our office, as requests to stay on campus were among the 1,000 other emails our office received. It took our team a significant amount of time to make sure we had logged all of our requests to stay on campus, when preparing a form in advance would have streamlined this process.
Anderson: Our most important take-aways were understanding what type of information students deemed valuable, at which times of day they were more inclined to engage, and how as a team we are best able to concisely communicate important messaging. We will continue to produce a collaborative newsletter and further our use of social media platforms.
Boyle: As shared above, we had limited face-to-face interactions due to trying to manage a contactless move-out. We still had staff present and available, and, overall, the interactions were considerate and almost appreciative that we were focusing on the students’ safety. The whole move-out process was considered to be a large success. Nothing major went wrong, but we did have some initial hiccups with making sure that we had all the communication approved in a timely manner by marketing and communication, as they were inundated by communication needs for the whole campus community. Our move-out included all our student staff, and we were challenged with timely communication about their employment during initial days.
Boyle: During the months of April and May we did a calling campaign for all 3,000 students on campus, asking how they were doing with remote learning, how they were doing mentally, and if they had questions about fall 2020 registration and housing sign-up. We are currently wrapping up our big wave of room selection and placement and are also starting up our new student orientation. These will be the primary contacts, while still fielding emails and phone calls. We are also working on some videos about living on campus to share with our current and prospective students. Overall, the university has communicated via email and press release that we plan on being in person come fall 2020 and that we will be taking steps to make sure that it is as safe as possible for all to return.
Maxwell: Email continues to be our primary form of communication with students, but we have supplemented that with text messages directing students to check their email for important updates for our office. In addition, the information we email gets put onto a special section of our office’s website, so it is easily accessible to the larger community who may not receive the email. We also place key information on the university’s larger COVID-19 website for families who are on that website looking for information about residence life. During this time, we’ll be sharing with them key information regarding our move-in process and expectations for living on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anderson: To remain connected with students and families, our newsletters, landing pages, and social media presence will continue throughout the summer and flow into the coming academic year. We will continue to host summer programs, as well as student leader meetings and workshops throughout the summer to support connections and student engagement. In preparation for the coming semester, we will continue to provide updates and plans for event logistics and management of student organizations for what will be a fall semester unlike any other.
Singleton: We are communicating mostly via email and social media with current and prospective residents. We plan to share updated information on a lower density housing plan, a drive-through check-in process, and other information in the near future. We have also been conducting virtual housing tours and information sessions twice a week over the course of the summer. These sessions replace the on-campus tours that we typically give during prospective student campus visits and summer orientations. A lot of what we are sharing right now, and plan to share in the future, will be about how we plan to continue to offer engaging and impactful living experiences while also providing enhanced safety measures in response to COVID-19. We are also working on how to best communicate changes to our policies and contracts directly related to the institutional pandemic response.
Maxwell: We are in the process of finalizing our plans, but we know we are looking at a longer move-in period to stagger students’ arrival on campus, as well as exploring how we can centralize the process to better control the number of people on campus at one time.
Singleton: We are currently planning on having a drive-through check-in process at a central location on campus. This process would be a week long rather than the typical weekend move-in. To accommodate this change, we have condensed RA training from two weeks to one. For their check-in, residents will be assigned a day and time to arrive. They will go to a central location where staff will check IDs, have them sign move-in paperwork, distribute keys and maps, etc., all from the safety of their own vehicle. Residents will then be able to go to their specific hall to move in. We are also exploring how to limit the guests in apartments during move-in. By strategically assigning resident move-in times, we can spread out arrivals to each building and maximize social distancing during the process. This low contact approach should help provide a safer environment for both residents and staff. As far as re-engaging the community, we plan to create a hybrid community development model that integrates our original community building strategies with the all-online model we instituted when campus closed.
Boyle: We are looking to totally revamp move-in and streamline the process. While we are still working out some details, we plan on having all residents drive to a specific parking lot on campus and then drive through and receive an all-encompassing packet with keys, promotion items, literature, and student IDs (new students only). We will also have some campus partners like financial aid and the treasurer’s office available to help students troubleshoot various concerns. The move-in will occur over the course of two weeks versus the traditional one week. The student’s move in date and time will be based on their home address, and the closer the student is, the earlier they will move in. Those who move in during the first week will be asked to return home to their local address until the second week, so that they are not just in their rooms with no classes or activities to engage in. We are also looking at less large-scale programming and more one-on-one or small group connections. This is continuously evolving and may change more as we are currently exploring options for what our academic calendar looks like.