Don’t Mask the Elephant: Keeping COVID-19 at the Top of Your Fall Communication Priorities

Posted: September 14, 2021

Holly Simons Vice President of Integrated Strategy


5 min. read

You’ve been at this for a year-plus. It’s tempting to think you’ve got pandemic messaging down pat.

Your campus – along with many others – did the hard work of reopening this Fall. Still, many are struggling to keep surging case numbers and the Delta variant at bay. 

This is a fragile turning point. Now is the time to step up your pandemic-oriented marketing and communications. 

Uncharted Territory 

At this time last year, when college was a fully remote experience, institutions communicated daily (in some cases, hourly). Institutions across the country – including many of our clients – stepped up in big ways to meet their students’ needs. Northern Virginia Community College introduced more flexible payment plans while adjusting their start, drop, and add dates. The University of Missouri Kansas City created scholarships to help adult learners impacted by job market instability. Campus communities not only rallied together to set COVID response plans in motion; they shared those plans quickly with internal and external audiences alike. 

While in-person learning has made its return on a grand scale, COVID-focused messaging has become spotty. 

Looking across the higher ed landscape, we see a reduced volume of health and safety information, with short messaging bursts where local infection rates are rising. We see a lack of prospective student and family focused communications on these topics. And we see a glaring need to shift focus from emergent communication to long-term messaging around preventative health measures.

Silence Invites Unease

Imagine the questions racing through the minds of prospective students and their parents.

How can we safely visit campus? Do classrooms and residence halls have safe airflow? How often are facilities sanitized? How are actively sick students quarantined? Where will students be quarantined if they test positive? How will social distancing play out in labs and the lecture halls?  

A minority of college and university websites address all of these questions online. Except the answers are either buried, hidden, or simply not there, leaving prospects with more questions and more unease. 

The Communication Mix 

Our strategy team at VisionPoint reviewed dozens of higher ed websites and found: 

  • The vast majority of Admission and Campus Visit websites include virtual visit options, but many contain no information about COVID safety measures.
  • Very few admission and campus visit websites address mask-wearing protocols and requirements for visitors.
  • University-wide protocols, generally written for internal audiences, exist on most sites.
  • Where pandemic information for visitors exists, it’s typically three to four clicks into the site.
  • Some campuses include this info in general FAQs, but don’t label them as having COVID information.

A Demand for the Facts 

We have deep respect for the hard work colleges and universities have undertaken to make wise decisions behind the scenes to protect the health and safety of students and staff. Campuses have policies and contingency plans in place. Even so, they aren’t sharing that information widely – to prospective students and parents, in particular – with the same pacing and emphasis we saw last year. Worse, there’s a widespread lack of transparency about campuses’ current COVID situation.

In our review of college and university websites, we have yet to find one that openly shares current or past data about campus vaccination or infection rates.

Consider the information that your prospects likely want to have at their fingertips:

  • Current and historic infection rates among current students, faculty, and staff.
  • Vaccination levels among the same populations.
  • Detailed campus health protocol – classroom distancing, limiting class sizes, access to and cost of testing, and more.
  • Contract tracing procedures.
  • Hybrid or virtual learning options.

Steps to Take

Elevating your COVID communications game doesn’t have to be a heavy lift. Below are a few ways you can start:  

  • Evaluate and improve: With your campus opening or reopening, consider whether your current communications address prospects’ needs in the places they’d look.
  • Continue to prevent melt: Thoroughly address COVID considerations throughout students’ first term on campus with the recognition that increased anxiety about COVID variants may increase withdrawals.
  • Reach them where they’re at: Dedicate social media posts and web real estate on your Admissions and Campus Visit pages to pandemic health and safety information. Focus social posts on the prospect and parent perspectives and needs.
  • Transparency wins: Provide information on campus infection and vaccination rates throughout the pandemic, including the most up-to-date information. Transparency on this data, when accompanied by detailed information on COVID safety practices, will build trust with prospects and their families.
  • Be consistent: Include health and safety information in a consistent location in most CRM communications – the email footer or a P.S. line are both good options.
  • Let actions drive the message: University of California Davis won national attention for their commitment to early testing and vaccine access for the entire surrounding county. University of Maine’s Shot Clock initiative is rewarding positive behavior with financial incentives for vaccinations. Several institutions are early adopters of smartphone apps to track exposure and wearable devices to detect body temperature changes. Tell the powerful stories of your campus’ actions and wins, particularly with prospects to build strong positive perceptions of your commitment to student health and safety.
  • Use your owned channels: CRM-driven email, text messages, prime home page real estate, campus news websites, and more can all can be used to build knowledge of your campus’ preventative measures and instill trust among parents that their children will be safe in your care.

Speak to Your Situation 

You’ve already aligned your COVID solutions with your campus’ situation. Inform your prospects and their families about that situation and those solutions. Tailor that communication to how the pandemic is trending in your region and avoid vague, cookie-cutter language.

The last thing you want is for your audiences to feel like you’re saying “everything is fine” without meaning it. 

Below are examples of how our clients have responded:

  • The Chicago area has been reporting substantial community spread with more than 50 new cases a day per 100,000 population. Likewise, the College of DuPage has issued a mask mandated for both vaccinated and unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff, while Loyola University Chicago is requiring all students to be vaccinated.
  • Alabama’s national high positivity rate of 24% and high-risk designation across all 67 counties has prompted the Alabama Community College System – a statewide multicampus entity – to require masks indoors for all staff, students, and visitors. 
  • All schools in the University of North Carolina System are implementing a strict get-vaccinated-or-get-tested policy given every North Carolina county now falls in the red category on the CDC’s community spread map. 

We’re Almost There

Let’s reapply the lessons from last year that got us this far. Maybe then, history won’t repeat itself, and we can move closer to the normalcy we yearn to reach. 

Holly Simons is the Vice President of Integrated Strategy at VisionPoint Marketing. As a senior-level consultant for new and existing projects, Holly helps colleges and universities devise custom cross-organizational solutions for growing and sustaining enrollment. Holly brings 20 years of higher ed wisdom from having led the enrollment marketing efforts at the University of Oregon where she consistently helped the university meet or exceed their enrollment goals. If you would like to start a conversation with Holly or any of our experts, please visit our Contact Us page. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.