🦠 Planning For Residence Life and Education in the Fall Under COVID-19: Student Learning and Community in Digital and Virtual Residence Halls

Virtual Communities

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a unique challenge for maintaining residential education and campus community in a time of social distancing and abrupt transitions to online and hybridized learning format. The role of residential education, however, is more critical than ever. Aiding students in identifying support networks, making connections with others, and the sharing of timely and relevant information and resources can make a significant impact on student retention.

Unfortunately, while there are a number of resources available about how to adapt college housing operations to this new reality, less attention has been paid to addressing student learning and community development needs. The following post attempts to address this by providing ideas and examples of how residential education can adapt under COVID-19 in order to be effective. It addresses 6 main areas:

  • Digital/Virtual Communities
  • Diversifying Strategies for Engagement
  • Learning Goals for Students
  • Community Development Goals
  • Individual Student Care Goals

For further ideas and resources on residential education during COVID-19, check out our curated resources page on the topic. We update this page as we become aware of additional resources.

Digital/Virtual Communities

Residence Life typically defines its communities based on physical spaces (floor communities, hall communities, etc.). Community, however, need not rely solely on communal living spaces. When COVID-19 forced many institutions to close campus housing and send students home, community still needed to be maintained. Rather than think of communities in terms of physical spaces, perhaps it’s better to think of them as mentoring cohorts. This opens up new possibilities for imagining community.

As you begin to plan for the Fall, think about how you can adapt your cohort models. These cohorts can be maintained whether the students physically live on a floor together or if they are remote. An RA is essentially a peer cohort leader, whether they physically live and/or physically interact with a “resident” or not. Student communities can be completely rethought under this dynamic.

Roompact Partner Tips!

Create Virtual Residence Hall Communities. Roompact has the ability to designate cohorts of students regardless of whether they live in the residence halls or not. We saw many of our schools take advantage of this feature to stay in contact with floors and communities of students even after they moved out of the residence hall early in the Spring. For the Fall, you might consider creating “virtual residence halls” with “virtual floors” to engage your students. Find out more and reach out to us about your options.

Staff Collaboration in the Hub. Remember that the Hub can be used as an internal communication tool amongst staff. This can be particularly useful when you want to coordinate staff response and have discussions that all staff can see and have access to. You can create new discussions with a discussion post, or respond to a Form Submissions and other system event by replying directly in the Hub to the notification.

Diversifying Strategies For Engagement

One of the essential elements of a residential curriculum is that diverse strategies are deployed to engage students that go beyond the typical “program.” As a result of this, many institutions that were utilizing a curricular approach seemed to be on a better footing to adapt when COVID-19 forced the closure of many campus residence halls. Because these schools did not rely on one main strategy type (such as “programming”) they had more tools in their tool belt that could be adapted to digital formats. For example, programming, although still possible in a digital format, needs to be rethought and reworked in order to be effective. Intentional conversations, in contrast, can be more easily adapted to an online environment.

When planning for the fall…

Rethink your engagement strategies…

  • Intentional and Group Conversations
  • Targeted Virtual Programs
  • Newsletters, Video, Visual Storytelling

Explore mediums available to you…

  • Social Media (Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  • Internal Networks and Software (ex. video conferencing, learning management software, collaboration tools, etc.)

What will your staffing resources be…

  • How many professional staff members do you have? What are their current duties? How might you need to shift these duties?
  • How many student staff members do you have? What are their current duties? How might you need to shift these duties?

NACA also suggests you also keep these thoughts in mind.

Roompact Partner Tips!

Microsurveys to Poll Your Students. The microsurveys feature has seen extensive use by Roompact campuses since the start of the pandemic. These short text-message based surveys can be useful for checking in on students, asking questions about potential engagement opportunities or student struggles, and for rapid information gathering.

COVID-19

Learning Goals For Your Students

The concept of essentialism is more important than ever. Essentialism asks you to do less so you can do more. Focus your work on the most critical (or essential) goals and tasks over which you have the greatest opportunity for impact. Given the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19, you may wish to temporarily rethink the learning goals you have for your students. Some goals are now more important than others. Some goal areas that may be more salient include:

Wellness

Goal: Students will be able to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Narrative: Although multidimensional wellness is always a goal for our students, there are unique aspects that have emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With students taking some classes online and with physical distancing in effect, students can be increasingly isolated–which carries with it the disruption of routine, wellness behaviors, and the potential exacerbation of mental health issues. Learning outcomes related to wellness should be tailored to the specific needs of students at this time while being cognizant of issues of access and differential impact–particularly as it relates to students’ social identities.

Example Outcomes:

  • Students will be able to exhibit behaviors to stop the spread of COVID-19 (hand washing, physical distancing, etc.)
  • Students will be able to identify safe ways to maintain physical exercise and healthy eating habits.
  • Students will be able to cope with the unique mental health stressors of COVID-19 (home life, sickness of family and friends, sense of loss, anxiety about the future, etc.)

Global Citizenship/Community Service

Goal: Students will engage in local, national, and global communities to take action helping others during the COVID-19 pandemic and a time of tumultuous societal change.

Narrative: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a period of rapid, unforeseen  disruption to communities and everyday life. These changes are also being expeirenced differently based on societal conditions and identities (such as race, socio-economic status, etc.). People are hurting and need help. Providing students with an outlet to take action is critical to developing them as responsible servant-citizens.

Example Outcomes:

  • Student will be able to articulate how the pandemic has differentially impacted people and communities based on inequality, social identities, and societal structures.
  • Students will be able to identify ways and act to help their communities respond to COVID-19 and its social impacts.

Academic Success Online

Goal: Students will be successful in navigating academics and their coursework in online and hybridized formats.

Narrative: With many classes switching to online instruction and with the potential for coursework to continue online or be provided through hybridized formats, students need to develop new skills to be effective in their studies. With increased isolation due to COVID-19, students also need to develop new systems of peer support and be provided with proactive outreach and guidance.

Example Outcomes:

  • Students will be able to thoroughly navigate and utilize university online learning platforms and their features.
  • Students will be able to identify and utilize strategies for succeeding in online learning environments.
  • Students will be able to develop study groups and access and assess academic support resources.

Career Readiness

Given the uncertain economy many of your graduates will enter into, you may also choose to have a special focus on career readiness–particularly for your graduating seniors. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines career readiness as, “the attainment and demonstration of requisite competencies that broadly prepare college graduates for a successful transition into the workplace.” NACE also defines a number of competencies required of students to achieve career readiness. Partnering with your Career Services Office can help you bring these resources and opportunities to students.

Roompact Partner Tips!

Facilitation Guides Through Resources. The Resources feature has recently received a major upgrade allowing it to be even more useful for the storage of curricular facilitation guides and other sporting materials. This can be especially useful if your staff are working remote. Find out more about the upgrades we released in June of 2020.

Community Development Goals

Although residential curricula are focused on student learning, these exist alongside community development goals you have for your residents. Although opportunities for physical community connections more limited under physical distancing, the goal of creating community is more important than ever.

  • Connection to Institution. Maintaining connections to the institution is important–especially when a physical campus and it’s traditions and culture aren’t accessible. Consider providing opportunities for students to express pride in their institutions, and express and demonstrate care and concern for one another. In addition to the institutional connection, this can also help advance individual care goals you may have for your students. Remember to keep lines of communication between students and your institution clear and open.
  • Peer Connections. Peer connections may not be as easily achieved in digital spaces as they are in physical spaces because developing and maintaining these connections requires more intentional effort. You can no longer rely on the random interactions and connections that occur when students occupy the same physical spaces. Taking a lead in developing and promoting digital spaces–either through social media hashtags, online community forums, or digital events–can recreate these spaces for students.

Suggested Resources:

Roompact Partner Tips!

Text Messaging To Stay In Contact With Your Community. To maintain contact with your community members, Roompact’s text messaging features can be incredibly useful whether you need to communicate with communities en masse or for individual text exchanges with students. Review our tutorials on what is possible.

Individual Student Care Goals

In addition to attending to general student learning and community needs, COVID-19 has also increased the need to focus on individual student care goals. With more students struggling in unique and diverse ways, it is important to pay attention to students’ unique situations and provide individualized outreach and support. Topics to think about include:

  • Navigating Student Home Life.  Transitioning to life as a student back in a home environment may present unique challenges. Students may also be returning to difficult or hostile home situations.
  • Mental Health Needs. Students who have struggled with mental health issues in the past may have difficulty adapting to new routines and circumstances. Overall, all students may experience stressors or trauma due to changes in financial security and the disruption of routine.
  • Addressing Fear, Providing Hope. Students may be concerned about the COVID-19 virus, particularly if they have pre-existing conditions. Students may also be questioning what their employment prospects may look like or mourning the loss of previous freedoms and opportunities.
  • Staying Connected with the University. Making sure that the student feels connected to the institution can help. Important information and updates need to be clear and easily accessible. This information should include procedural and operational updates and enhance students’ pride in and connection to the institution.

Suggested Resources:

Roompact Partner Tips!

Coordinating Individual Student Response. Through Roompact’s tagging abilities, information on students can be collected and displayed in multiple ways depending on  your needs. Room Statuses, and Resident Timelines allow you to better track and follow up on individual students and concerns. Your entire history with a student is available to you when you need to review it.

Staff Alert. The Staff Alert feature can be useful for coordinating staff response to a student case. Entering a student name allows you to notify the relevant RA(s) or RD(s) or required actions for follow up.

Staff Alert

Conclusion

Adjusting to the realties of the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult but necessary to support our students. Although residential life and education may need to change, it nevertheless remains as important as ever. In many ways, the pandemic provides some unique opportunities to reexamine our practices, challenge underlying assumptions, and find ways to be more responsive to student needs. Even after the immediate effects of the pandemic are over, our professional practice may be forever changed.


Key Questions

  • How might you transition to digital communities or virtual residence halls?
  • How can you diversify your engagement strategies better serve your students?
  • How will your goals change or evolve given the unique circumstances of COVID-19 and tumultuous societal change?
  • How can you create a sense of community through the use of digital spaces?
  • How can you provide initializes support to student through this difficult time?