As reports of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases increase in the U.S., colleges and universities are preparing for potential disruptions and closures.
While the risk to the general public in the U.S. remains low, colleges are reviewing emergency management plans and connecting with local health agencies. Many community colleges also are issuing statements telling students, employees and the community that they are monitoring the situation.
“A statement acknowledging that you’re aware of the situation and staying on top of it can go a long way in reassuring people,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.
An evolving situation
In King County, Washington, circumstances evolved quickly over the weekend. A local high school student tested positive for coronavirus. Everett Community College (EvCC) was fast to react, issuing a statement from President Daria Willis reassuring people that the student had likely not been on EvCC’s campus.
She also stated that she had activated EvCC’s emergency management team to “identify resources and strategies to prepare EvCC to prevent the spread of the virus and rapidly respond to any concerns that arise.”
The following day, Willis issued another statement after a death in King County was attributed to the virus. Willis reiterated that “EvCC is working with public health officials to be as prepared as possible to protect the health of the EvCC community.” She also assured readers that no members of the EvCC community had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
The right tone
Willis felt it was important to address the situation quickly.
“I believe in providing transparency and a level of communication that keeps all stakeholders informed. It is important for the campus and community to know the steps my administration is taking to be as prepared as possible,” Willis said. “If we do not, that gives opportunity for rumors and misinformation to be disseminated throughout the college.”
As for striking the right tone, she credits the EvCC public relations team.
“I specifically asked them to make the message as informative as possible without creating a state of panic. If people know we are following guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the Snohomish Health District, we are hoping this will help maintain a calm situation.”
Elsewhere in the state, Spokane Community College posted information and resources, including what the decision-making process will be and reminding people how to receive emergency alerts from the college.