College students on campus

Challenges for Campus Safety in a Hybrid Learning Environment

[This is a part of a continuing series helping universities prepare and respond in the new academic year.]

Video on how SafeZone helps with the return to campus

Preparing for the Inevitable

You feel ready. You’ve developed a comprehensive reopening strategy that that includes entry tests and surveys, temperature checking stations, social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, safe conduct pledges, and you’ve even lowered the density of students in dorms/accommodations and dining halls.

But then it happens. Your university opens, the students return, and everything changes…fast. Despite all your plans, imagine having over 500 students test positive for COVID-19 within the first one to two weeks of the new school term. While it may sound far-fetched, it has already happened at over twenty different universities in the U.S. including the University of Maryland which has over 2,500 COVID+ students, the University of Tennessee that has over 2,100 in quarantine and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill which closed its on-campus housing and sent students home.

When thousands of students suddenly descend on your campus from all over the world, many believe it’s not a question of if, but when your university experiences one or more COVID-19 outbreaks.  As of early September, nearly 88,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported at US universities as students return to campus.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for universities. To most institutions, completely shutting down campus risks the possibility of forfeiting millions in lost revenue i.e. tuition, athletic events, conferences, and research grant opportunities. Equally important is the sub-par student experience and the potential damage to an organization’s brand and reputation, including future hits to student retention and recruiting.

To be proactive, most universities have adopted a hybrid or blended learning program in which students attend virtual classes remotely but also attend certain classes or labs on select days on a limited basis. And while you may believe students will be fine in this remote learning environment, the reality is it comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to looking after the safety and wellbeing of students. This article explores the challenges associated with caring for the safety and wellbeing of your university community in a hybrid or blended learning. We’ll also describe how the uniquely adaptable SafeZone service can help you address these challenges head on.

The Challenges of Operating in a Hybrid or Blended Learning Environment:

  • Change Is Constant

  • Safety & Security Teams Under Pressure

  • Need for Targeted Communications

  • Learning the Rules

  • Losing Touch with Those Off-Campus

  • Caring for Your High-Risk Communities

Change is Constant

First and foremost, everything is in FLUX. This is unprecedented, and no one has a script for what’s going to happen next. Your university is making plans for how to operate with the best intentions and information available at the moment, but we all know a week is a long time amid the COVID-19 pandemic and conditions and government guidance can change quickly on the front lines.

To support this rapidly changing environment, you need to create a perception of safety that is clear and concise for students and staff regardless of how they navigate across the institution and where they go for assistance i.e. working alone, commuting to/from campus, studying in the library, working late etc.

Safety & Security Teams Under Immense Pressure

Security Guard

After rolling out a complicated set of guidelines, rules and mandates for the university community, higher education institutions naturally lean on their safety and security teams to patrol, oversee and even enforce the new regulations as a 24/7 department. Under normal circumstances this would be challenging but it’s made even more so by the overarching heightened tensions and anxiety across campus tied to fear of contracting COVID-19, and unfamiliarity or frustration with the university’s new rules and regulations.

To top it all off, due to COVID-19 and cuts to higher education budgets, the Safety & Security teams are short-staffed, often facing hiring freezes, furloughs and even reductions in force. Add to that the inevitable quarantine for one or more exposed staff and you can quickly see the immense pressure these teams are under. In addition to the short-staffed and overwhelmed Safety & Security first responders, there’s a shortage of other staff that typically support the first responders i.e. first-aid staff, building wardens, counselors, safety engineers etc. that have been encouraged to work at home and thus have limited availability.

The combination of reduced resources coupled with incremental responsibilities is forcing these Safety & Security teams to be as flexible as possible so they can maintain operations for as long as possible – and that requires robust coordination and communication. They know they can’t sustain the incremental workload with scarce resources over an extended period of time without improved systems and processes

If a major incident does occur, and your team is significantly under-resourced, how can you ensure that you have situational awareness, and properly respond to mitigate a critical incident? To address this question, Safety & Security teams are evaluating new solutions like SafeZone to provide them with the situational awareness of their teams so they can better coordinate and direct their limited resources and mitigate the outcome of incidents. Ideally, they’re looking for solutions that can equip a wide range of university resources to respond without overwhelming any particular group. For example, the capability to route requests for student counseling directly to Student Wellness. This differentiated but focused response based upon the nature of the incident, provides a force multiplier effect by enabling organizations with stretched resources to achieve new levels of efficiency and truly work as a congruent team.

Need for Targeted Communications

Targeted Communications

One day you’re in a hybrid learning environment, and the next thing you know there’s been a major outbreak and you’re in a fully virtual learning environment until conditions begin to improve. The implications are clear: You need a series of pre-built contingency plans and highly adaptable tools so that you have the means to clearly communicate to students and staff regarding what has happened, how they’re affected and what action they need to take. Equally important, is having the ability to communicate in a rapid and targeted manner.  For example, if you decide to close a particular lab, not every staff and student needs to get that message. It’s all about relaying information that is timely and relevant information as conditions on the ground change.

Universities often try to compensate by exposing students arriving on campus to a wave of messaging, typically in the form of digital and hard copy signs, banners, and posters across campus, plus email, and social media. The challenge is that students quickly become adept at ignoring surrounding signs. Emails, when opened, are not read in a timely manner so universities struggle with communicating important messages that are actually opened, read and understood in real time. The use of push notifications can help strengthen and augment communications with an over 90% open rate that is usually consumed in under 15 minutes (source). With SafeZone, these push notifications can be customized by audience or location and are effective for other critical incidents beyond COVID-19 i.e. natural disaster, fire, active assailant.

For example, let’s say your university had to close a building due to COVID-19 contamination and undertake deep cleaning.  The organization can simply update guidance on their lead web page with campus updates for the day. Even better, the notifications can be tagged so that when a student checks in via the safety app as they enter campus and/or enters a pre-defined geo-zone, they’ll automatically receive a push notification with the latest update. The combination of targeted and timely notifications yields a powerful combination that enhances the student experience.

Learning the Rules

Students practice social distancing

There are some fairly prescriptive directives that have to be followed to support a hybrid learning environment and again, these are likely to change based on circumstances. With COVID-19 it can be challenging for both students and seasoned staff to understand who is permitted on campus, where they can and can’t go, and when they’re permitted, and how this changes from day to day.. This of course is compounded with freshman or first-year students who outside of a pandemic, would normally attend on-site campus orientations and spend a lot of time in their new surroundings. Instead, orientation activities are shifting largely online and when confined to their housing accommodations, these new students lack the familiarity with their surroundings as well as a lack of clarity about where to go for answers.

The uncertainties tied to who’s allowed to go where and when and how to seek help can be a source of significant anxiety, so anything the university can do to make it as clear and simple to understand will help ease concerns and stress that could otherwise exacerbate the mental health of university community.

Losing Touch With Those Off-Campus

Lonely student during pandemic

In a hybrid learning environment, many universities have adopted a policy whereby staff are advised to work from home, unless their job is deemed essential. As a result, you’ll likely have hundreds of staff and several thousand students you’re responsible for, that are studying and working alone off-campus. And when you’re not in close physical proximity to these individuals, it makes it easier for staff and students to slip through the cracks and more difficult to maintain rapport with them and monitor their health and wellbeing.

Research shows the pandemic has a greater impact on those already struggling with mental health. One survey by YoungMinds reported that 80% of young respondents agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened pre-existing mental health conditions, mainly due to school closures, anxiety, loneliness, loss of routine, and restricted social conditions. [YoungMinds 2020] It also found 31% of those who were accessing mental health support in the three months leading up to the COVID-19 crisis said they were no longer able to access support but still needed it. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found this summer that one in four US adults between the ages of 18 and 24 considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, and more than 40% reported they experienced a mental or behavioral health condition connected to the Covid-19 emergency [CDC Study].

This means universities need the means for counselors to be able to proactively check-in with those struggling with mental health to ensure they’re getting the counseling services they need. Equally important, students need to be empowered with a tool like SafeZone to easily call for help when they’re feeling overwhelmed that can route them to the appropriate university resource.

Empowering Students & Staff

College students on campus

Given the shortfall in resources and rapidly changing conditions, it’s important to empower students and staff to have the ability to understand the situation, request help, and support them as best as possible to optimize response and outcomes. In order to empower individuals, you need to provide the information that’s appropriate to that person when and where they need it, with a simplified interface that is easy to use doesn’t require a lot of interpretation.

Being able to provide real-time updates on procedures, policies and general guidance to targeted vulnerable groups, all users or specific communities is critical to delivering the best outcome for everyone in the campus community.  When you can deploy a solution that removes cultural and language barriers to help staff and students pinpoint and secure the resources needed to provide quick response, you’re beginning to deliver an improved student experience that better fulfills your institution’s duty of care. Furthermore, this creates a force multiplier effect in which individual staff and students can directly access the help they need, streamlining response to a wide range of incidents. In this video, Claire Humble, Head of Campus Security at Teesside University shares how SafeZone helped her team create a culture of community, safety and wellbeing by empowering staff and students.

One example of empowerment is the availability of tip reporting available through SafeZone, which can be used to enable students and staff to send in anonymous tips about a wide range of issues from seeking mental health counseling to reporting bullying, burglary or drug dealing.  During COVID-19, this is particularly helpful to help the university become aware of things like overcrowding, non-compliance with social distancing or adhering to a quarantine.  All of this is done in an anonymous and non-confrontational manner.  Using this capability means you’re empowering the student and staff members to take safety and security into their own hands so they’re not completely dependent on the institution to come and serve them.  Instead, if they need assistance, it’s within their grasp and with just a touch of a button on their smartphone, they can get the appropriate response to the situation.

Shaping Perceptions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, safety and wellbeing is consistently in focus and people are heightened to it, so it’s important for universities to capitalize on this opportunity by creating an environment that helps reassure the community that it’s safe to teach and learn. Ideally, you want every touchpoint that a student or staff member has with the university, to result in the perception that their university has taken their safety and security into consideration.

In addition, you need them to have the ability to access the data and advice they need so they can go about their business and flourish. Your institution’s ability to execute and visibly deliver a service that emphasizes student safety and wellbeing across every touch point will help reinforce future students’ perceptions, as well as those of their parents, that you view their personal safety as a top priority. And universities that can demonstrate this, will gain the trust of their student and staff community.

Moving Forward

When it comes time to protecting your most important asset, your students, faculty and staff, now is the time to take every reasonable step to fulfill your duty of care. As explored in this article, universities will face several unique challenges tied to protecting student and staff wellbeing when operating in a blended or hybrid learning environment.

To effectively protect the university community, you need flexible, responsive tools like SafeZone that as a force multiplier so you can better coordinate your limited resources and respond to students and staff who need assistance. Most importantly, you need solutions that can be implemented quickly, and CriticalArc has implemented SafeZone for universities in under a week, so if you need to make an immediate impact, we’re ready to help.


Author: Glenn Farrant, CEO of CriticalArc

The Return to Campus: How SafeZone HelpsReassuring Students & Staff for the New Academic Year

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