Community College Communications in the Wake of COVID-19

More important than ever are college’s communications plans to make sure that the entire college community and region is well aware of the suspensions to college operations as normal and other pertinent, urgent matters.

Community College Communications in the Wake of COVID-19

Most of the world has been affected by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Community colleges are in a unique position and face unique challenges as resource providers to their local communities and providers of high-quality higher education.

ACCT has reached out to member colleges to find out how they are responding to these events—what challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve coped, and what lessons are being learned. This is part of a series of topical articles that address these concerns, as specific to community colleges and their boards. This article series will be updated in real time as we learn more about how our nation’s most nimble educational institutions are adapting in real time.

This article focuses on college communications.

Internal Communications

College operations can only be effective when everyone who is part of the college community—from the board of trustees and CEO to other college staff and students - communicate effectively. Internal communications are the core of making fast-paced operational changes that will work for the institution.

More important than ever are college’s communication plans to make sure that the entire college community and region is well aware of the suspensions to college operations as normal and other pertinent, urgent matters.

Clark State Community College President Jo Blondin reports that she has been in constant communication with the board chair and, when appropriate, their entire board, regarding COVID-19. “I speak with our board of trustees Chair Brad Phillips at least every other day, providing updates.” Many other presidents and trustees indicated that they had established “consulting” collaborations with other boards, presidents, key college staff, and local agencies for daily discussions on best practices and ideas for handling this crisis.

While many news stories have highlighted the transition of college classes to online venues, virtual communications have proven essential to effective college leadership. In at least one case, an essential decision-maker—the board chair—was out of town, but thanks to technology, there has been no delay in taking actions and no lag in communicating among other crucial leaders.

College of Lake County Board Chair William M. Griffin is maintaining virtual communications with his board members and with President Laurie Suddick. Griffin said that he was on an early spring break when the COVID-19 pandemic reached emergency status, and that he was “stuck in Florida, yet approving college-wide plans with board members and our president. We have also had to make several changes to our plans, such as alternative delivery. All courses are now completely online.“ In-person sessions will be allowed, but students and faculty must abide by smaller cohorts and social distancing rules of six feet or be cancelled in some cases.

College and community-wide communications are utilized daily, and the website and emergency phone communications were made available to all students and to all employees.

Griffin added, “We communicate daily as this crisis takes a new turn each day. The board and I gave the go-ahead and closed the campus except for essential personnel (administrators, security, IT staff, etc.) and extended our spring break to April 12.” He also emphasized that it is imperative to have very good relations and communications between the board chair and the president. “I am available every hour even though I am not there now,” he noted.

Kim Tanaka, director of the Association of College Trustees, which represents community colleges throughout the entire state of Washington, says, “This is a huge wake-up call. What we do now is to keep colleges running. Our job now is to help keep our colleges open and take care of our students and others affected by this pandemic. This will be the new norm for quite some time.”

Throughout the emergency of the pandemic, which early on hit Washington state harder than any other, Tanaka has been consulting with institutions throughout her state and with national associations, ACCT and AACC, and her peer statewide community college and trustee associations throughout the country. 

Those communications include relaying the overall needs of community colleges throughout her entire state to ACCT and AACC federal advocates so that they can in turn be relayed to federal legislators and agencies.

 Community Communications

All colleges ACCT has reached out to have prioritized communications with their students, their staffs and their communities. Most individuals we’ve spoken with have said they consider their students and their greater communities to be priority number one. That means communicating updates about institutional changes to the broad community, but also making good use of the college’s deep network into the community to share vital public health, wellness and safety advisories. Community colleges are trusted resources in their communities, and so at a time in which a lot of false information circulates, delivery of information or direction to official information is an important service colleges can provide during times of crisis.

Developing a well-thought-out resource webpage for the college community has been an initial step for many colleges. Dead center of the home page of the County College of Morris in New Jersey is an unmissable link to the college’s COVID-19 Information and Resource Center, a webpage that contains the latest updates for students, faculty and staff.

The site includes New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s daily briefings and the latest updates, recommended Centers for Disease Control prevention measures, and other helpful resources to assist those struggling with domestic violence, food insecurity, housing, mental health, substance abuse and other life issues. College and community-wide communications are utilized daily, and the website and emergency phone communications were made available to all students and to all employees. A call to County College of Morris President Anthony Iacono’s office connects to a recorded message about the college being on spring break and the College’s deep cleaning of the campus during this time.

There is no question that this New Jersey community college aims to be prepared during this pandemic, and the college’s website demonstrates their concerns for all the college constituents.

Lake Washington Institute of Technology (LWTech, formerly Lake Washington Technical College) showcases one of the most detailed college websites for information about the virus to its college constituents and site visitors. “You should be able to find everything you need on our website, where we’ve been posting updates, nearly every day,” says Leslie Shattuck, LWTech’s public information officer. On the site, too, are downloads of coping with stress during this outbreak. The site also offers this information in Spanish.

LWTech’s site indicates clearly the Red Alert Level: Significant Direct Impact: Minimum of one person tested positive for COVID-19 followed by the latest updates from President Amy Morrison. LWTech’s nursing program was deeply impacted as a group of students and their instructor were in direct contact with the nursing home where elderly persons had contracted the virus.  

Most of the community college CEOs around the nation have posted regular “messages” to keep the college community apprised of college operations, emergency plans, and website links to local healthcare services that provide health information from how the virus spreads to information from medical insurance providers. Other CEOs such as Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, also has a video message on the Alamo Colleges District website home page.

“Another important function of the board,” stated Blondin, “is to be the eyes and ears of the community, and thus far Clark State has received kudos for its quick response and transparent communication regarding their modified operations.”

 ACCT members are encouraged to contact ACCT with information about what your college is doing to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what lessons you have learned.

ACCT will continually update and expand resources as this unprecedented event evolves.

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ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

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