Institutions across the country are bracing for the impact of the latest COVID-19 variant, Omicron. While there is a vast range of reactions (from doing nothing at all to shutting down in-person learning for the first few weeks of the semester), it’s clear that the latest variant will have a profound impact on students everywhere.
Yet, educators shouldn’t fear the next few weeks. The good news is that many institutions already have the tools needed to thrive in this latest wave of the pandemic. Now is the time for institutions to show that they can keep students safe, without sacrificing their education. Here are five recommendations to help your institution survive Omicron.
Communicate policies clearly and timely
Much of the health community projects that the Omicron variant will spread quickly this month and taper off by February. As a result, a number of institutions are implementing temporary policies that will only exist for a few weeks. While mitigation measures won’t be nearly as long as they were in March 2020, it’s important to prioritize clear and timely communication as much as possible.
Students will need precise information on whether or not the campus is open, the dorm policy, which buildings are open and any restrictions that students should know going into the semester. You should also be prepared to deliver that message in a variety of ways, whether that’s a campus opening or new requirements, it’s important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all. Spread your message across email, text and social media so nobody misses your announcements.
Be proactive around mental health outreach
If your policies require isolation, your students may have a tough time adjusting to limited social interactions or staying outside the classroom. Others may feel anxious about what a sudden spike in cases might do to their immune system. Regardless of what students might be feeling, it’s important to stay ahead of any mental health issues and provide proactive outreach.
This could look like a regular check-in with a quick text asking how they’re doing or offering added resources for those who are at higher risk for more severe issues. Not to mention, proactive text campaigns are effective tools for identifying at-risk members of a population. Students don’t like to ask for help when they’re suffering from mental health issues. Rather, they expect their institutions to provide the necessary resources so they can talk things out when needed and get the support they’ve learned to expect. Any mitigation tactics taken to slow the spread of the Omicron variant must also ensure there are ample resources available for students to get them through this challenging time.
Provide flexibility based on student preferences
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that a one size fits all approach is a losing strategy. The Omicron variant will likely impact a variety of students from all walks of life and with varied degrees of comfort. Rather than creating a policy for all students, allow greater flexibility for students to learn on their terms.
Students are no different than the employees who are divided on working remote, hybrid or want to be in-person. It all depends on their personal circumstances and how they learn best. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that students shouldn’t be treated as a monolith. Instead, they should be encouraged to cater their academic experience to their personal needs and educators must prepare to meet them there.
Prepare for the unknown
The pandemic has taught us over and over again that there is no predicting what’s next. This variant like all others before it will come and go, likely in a matter of weeks. But educators must be nimble with their plans and prepare to change course with little notice.
By the way, now is the time to invest in HEPA air purifiers if you haven’t already. The easiest way to get students to trust that you’re looking out for their health is to ensure your building filters out the virus as much as possible. As we’ve reported in our study, this measure is expected from students moving forward. Institutions need to be forward-thinking and proactive when it comes to looking out for students. Remaining flexible no matter what challenges lie ahead will go a long way in gaining trust from your students.
Promote remote work for staff whenever possible
One of the best ways to keep employees healthy is to allow them the ability to work remotely as much as possible. It’s likely that many of your employees would prefer to work from home anyway and providing this flexibility ensures that your staff won’t need to take time off if they get infected on campus.
If you’ve invested in the right IT resources, working remotely shouldn’t be much of a challenge for staff, and students most likely prefer communication over channels like email, live chat or text anyway. Even if some on-campus staff is required, minimizing the number of employees will greatly reduce the likelihood of infection.
One of the biggest lessons higher ed is taking from the current Omicron variant is that this pandemic is likely with us for the foreseeable future. However, it is likely to have a much milder impact on students and employees once this wave passes. Until then, institutions should follow the above recommendations to help make the start of their semester seamless.