Five tips for student support staff and faculty as Omicron upends the start of spring term

Helping your students as Omicron throws a wrench in return-to-campus plans 

Another term, another COVID-19 variant. What we initially hoped would be a few weeks away from campus in the spring of 2020 is still an ongoing saga of uncertainty and adaptation. Now with the Spring 2022 term beginning at colleges and universities nationwide, administrators are up against the latest, easily spread Omicron variant. Some schools, like Harvard, Michigan State, Rice, and the California State University system are starting the term remotely, at least for the first week or so. Others, including Penn State, plan for an in-person return, with the caveat that students should be prepared to alter their plans. And the majority of institutions are requiring proof of vaccination (including booster) or negative COVID test before the resumption of in-person classes. Helping a single person achieve their educational goals and move on to the career they aspire to can have a lifelong impact — not just on that individual, but also on their family, their community and society as a whole. Creating that ripple starts with our organizational values — five core values that form the foundation for everything we do. From the newest member of the team to the most tenured employee, these values fuel the work we do every day — helping learners overcome the obstacles to their success, achieving their goals and generating lasting impact. We are proud to share our new core values.

An even bigger burden on staff and faculty

Coping with the continuing uncertainty and disruptions around this latest variant is stressful (and fatiguing) enough. But when you add in the fact that students are looking to you for help, guidance and comfort — all while you’re dealing with your own COVID-related concerns — your stress level may hit a new high. As someone who already wears a multitude of hats — mentor, educator, leader, researcher, administrator — you may feel defeated knowing you also have to add safety monitor, pandemic expert and anxiety counselor to the list. Here are some simple tips to help lighten the load.

1. Keep communication channels open – and active 

With all of the uncertainty and changes hovering over the Spring 2022 — be it on campus, online or both — keeping incoming students connected is crucial. From the staff at student life to individual professors, personalized email, phone and text outreach can not only give the students the sense that they’re welcomed here, but also show that someone cares — and that students have someone they can reach out to. With fewer group activities allowed, it’s important for students to feel supported.

2. Be transparent 

Even though the pandemic has now been going on for nearly two years, super-contagious Omicron has made it so this isn’t just the start of another term. Normalizing the “new normal” (the 2022 version) is a way to put students at ease. They’re going to feel overwhelmed. They’re going to be confused and feel a sense of missing out on things that were previously part of the everyday routine. Some may be angry too or annoyed. That’s OK. Being upfront about the changes through open dialogue can help relieve some of the anxiety students are feeling. And with changes happening every day, continuing to talk about the realities of a campus under coronavirus restrictions will reinforce the message.

3. Look for warning signs of students in trouble  

It’s becoming a cliché, but these really are anxious times. The same holds true for what students at your institution are going through. Maybe their family is struggling with job loss, income worries or housing insecurity. Perhaps a loved one has (or had) COVID or some other serious illness. Once on campus, the student could begin to feel isolated and alone, worrying about news from home (and news in general) in addition to their studies. The same can be true for students learning remotely, often under less-than-optimal conditions.

Social isolation, withdrawal and lethargy are all signs of depression. Does their personality seem to be changing? Are they irritable or constantly anxious? Are there marked changes in their concentration, motivation and class participation? These could all be signs of underlying issues. In the proper one-on-one setting, it’s OK for you to ask and show your concern.

4. Keep calm and carry on 

Under the best of circumstances, starting a new term is a stressful and challenging time for students. Toss in yet another COVID variant and things can quickly become overwhelming. So your patience, understanding and reassuring demeanor — even when the world around you may be chaotic — can set the tone for the students you work with as well.

5. Be available  

With all of the coronavirus-related changes and new demands on your time, adding another responsibility to your list may seem counterintuitive. But it’s crucial that you make yourself available, as much as possible, for your students — even more so than usual. For students, being able to talk with someone they trust and respect — whether it’s a question about class, an upcoming deadline or just a chance to chat — can help the student weather the emotional storm and continue on the path to their goal.

Need help pushing reset when student goals go off track? 

The answer is CLEAR. In our coaching methodology, we rely on the CLEAR Framework – Confirm, Legitimize, Evaluate And Respond – as a way to listen to students with intent during difficult situations and respond in a productive way. Learn how seeking to understand the situation before seeking to solve the situation can help with your student interactions.

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