Communicating about coronavirus

By AACC 21st Century Center Staff

How colleges are keeping their communities informed about COVID-19.

As reports of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases increase in the United States, colleges and universities are preparing for potential disruptions and closures.

While the risk to the general public in the U.S. remains low, it is a good time for colleges to review emergency management plans and connect with local health agencies. Many community colleges also are issuing statements telling students, employees and the community that they are monitoring the situation.

“A statement acknowledging that you’re aware of the situation and staying on top of it can go a long way in reassuring people,” Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, says.

An evolving situation

In King County, Washington, circumstances evolved quickly over the weekend. A Jackson High School student tested presumptive positive for Coronavirus, or COVID-19. Everett Community College (EvCC) was fast to react, issuing a statement from President Daria Willis reassuring people that the student had likely not been on EvCC’s campus.

She also stated that she had activated EvCC’s Emergency Management Team to “identify resources and strategies to prepare EvCC to prevent the spread of the virus and rapidly respond to any concerns that arise.”

The following day, Willis issued another statement after a death in King County was attributed to the novel coronavirus.  Willis reiterated, “EvCC is working with public health officials to be as prepared as possible to protect the health of the EvCC community.” She also assured readers that no members of the EvCC community had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Willis felt it was important to address the situation quickly.

“I believe in providing transparency and a level of communication that keeps all stakeholders informed. It is important for the campus and community to know the steps my administration is taking to be as prepared as possible,” Willis said. “If we do not, that gives opportunity for rumors and misinformation to be disseminated throughout the college.”

As for striking the right tone, she credits the EvCC public relations team.

“I specifically asked them to make the message as informative as possible without creating a state of panic. If people know we are following guidelines from the CDC and the Snohomish Health District, we are hoping this will help maintain a calm situation.”

Elsewhere in the state, Spokane Community College posted information and resources, including what the decision-making process will be and reminding people how to receive emergency alerts from the college.

Providing resources and next steps

At the Los Rios Community College District in California, four students at its member colleges have been exposed to individuals with confirmed coronavirus. Classes are proceeding and the district is keeping students, staff and faculty apprised of the situation. The district posted resources as well as frequently asked questions to address some of the concerns of students and staff.

At California’s City College of San Francisco (CCSF), a statement posted online says that CCSF is participating in daily “all-hands meetings” with the Department of Emergency Management (DEM), Department of Public Health (DPH) and several other essential city departments and organizations. The statement went on to say, “We are also active members of a Community Emergency Preparedness Operation that meets weekly and includes DEM, DPH, schools, businesses and churches.”

CCSF also stated that it is installing hand sanitizers throughout its campuses and increasing the frequency of cleaning of restrooms and other sanitary facilities. Most facilities will be closed over spring break to allow for a “deep clean” of all areas.

At the system level, the City University of New York (CUNY) has issued guidance on its website, especially pertaining to study abroad programs.

The statement ends with a reminder about valuing CUNY’s diverse community. “These challenging times are not an excuse to behave any differently towards those we serve, live and work with,” Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Jose Luis Cruz says.

How is your college communicating with your community about the coronavirus? Sound off at LinkedIn.

AACC 21st Century Center Staff

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.