Home for the Holidays: Campus Health Habits During the Break from an Unusual School Year

Insights | Home for the Holidays: Campus Health Habits During the Break from an Unusual School Year

Author: Chris Mihin, CBC, Vice President & Managing Principal

This school year is like no other – with COVID variants disrupting past mitigation measures, a flu season challenging weakened immune systems after months of social distancing and a rise in awareness of mental and emotional health needs, there is a lot to consider about your campus health. As the long Winter Break approaches, many health and wellness advocates on campuses are thinking about how to help students stay healthy on- and off-campus. Some of the top issues that come to mind include:  

COVID-19 Vaccination, Testing and Masking 

As students travel for the Winter Break, they’ll spend time in areas of the country or world that may have more exposure to emerging COVID-19 variants. Many colleges and universities are enacting vaccination, testing or masking requirements, among other strategies to stop spread on campus.  

As of late November, over 1,000 colleges or universities require COVID vaccination for on-campus students. Some encourage, but don’t require, vaccination and use incentives: the University of North Dakota recently offered dining vouchers to any vaccinated student.  

Policies continue to change during the “pandemic in flux” as case rates fluctuate and national and local mandates evolve. Kim Baker, ACSM EP-C, Director of University Wellness at Northern Kentucky University (NKU), emphasized the need to stay vigilant and keep campus health a priority, “We do our best with the information we have, drawing from national and local experts on campus and encouraging students, faculty and staff to do all they can to stay safe.” 

COVID-19 testing is another way to protect your students, faculty, and staff from encountering the virus. Some institutions, such as Penn State, are not requiring vaccination but mandate non-vaccinated students to undergo regular testing. Access to COVID-19 testing is important regardless of your campus’s vaccine mandate status, especially for international students who may need testing to travel home for the holidays. 

Masking mandates are another measure many are using to keep COVID-19 at bay. This extra layer of protection cuts down on spreading the COVID-19 virus and lessens the spread of the flu and common cold.  

Regardless of what methods your campus uses, make it easy for students to comply with any mandates or recommendations. Ensure COVID-19 vaccination and testing is available on or near your campus and covered by your Student Health Insurance Program (SHIP). For example, Northern Kentucky University (NKU) partnered with a local lab to offer COVID-19 testing on-campus for all students, faculty and staff. Other methods include offering free masks in high-volume areas like rec centers and cafeterias and adding additional protection from illness with SHIP-covered flu shots on or near campus. 

Mental and Emotional Wellness at Home 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone, and your students are no exception. At NKU, Kim Baker noted that a study from NKU’s Office of Health, Counseling and Student Wellness found “Student mental health support requests increased by roughly 18% in 2020, with further expansion predicted.” While much has been done to address the ways COVID-19 exacerbated the mental health crisis on campus, there is still more to do. As students leave campus, how can you ensure they bring the mental and emotional health tools they have on campus with them? 

Start by offering multiple ways for students to engage with mental health resources. Provide telehealth opportunities and peer group counseling, and give access to gamified learning options that help keep a check on mental health. The more ways students can access resources, the better. NKU recently participated in the Healthy Minds Study, a national endeavor developed to generate data on the most effective ways of investing in the mental health of college students, to identify campus needs.  

As a result of the Healthy Minds study, NKU is actively adding resources for students, “Our Mental Health Advisory Group has focused on early, ongoing support,” said Kim Baker. “Along with offering counseling sessions in-person at our Office of Health, Counseling, and Student Wellness, we adopted telehealth tools to increase access to resources for waitlisted students and reach distance and online learners.” She added, “We’ve seen continued growth in demand for these services. To remove barriers to access, NKU is waiving all counseling fees and training students to recognize warning signs in themselves and others.” NKU recently adopted a program to train students to be active peer support specialists. The program, run by a licensed mental health professional, aims to train as many as 60 students by the end of the school year.  

Beyond these tools, you can also empower faculty and staff to address student mental health needs better while managing their own needs too. The faculty and staff at NKU are well-equipped with workshops to help them recognize signs in students, co-workers, and themselves. “We’ve focused on training our faculty and staff, including our campus police and EMS, in ‘mental health first aid.’ The more people who can provide front-line, early intervention, the better,” Kim Baker said of the program.  

A COVID-era report from Boston University’s School of Public Health showed two out of ten professors said “supporting students in mental or emotional distress” took a toll on their own mental health. Students are more likely to turn to the professors they see every day for help, so you need to equip faculty and staff to handle this weight. Professional development and other training, as well as access to phone, online, or in-person counseling, can help your faculty and staff feel ready when a student comes to them with concerns. At NKU, staff and faculty are always-ready with resources, “All our staff and faculty have a Gold Folder detailing all our resources, including how to determine the best route for any situation they encounter,” Kim Baker said “I’m looking at mine right now. It’s a great way to stay ready to help at any time.” 

Make a Plan with HORAN Campus Health 

No one could predict what this school year would look like, but you can be prepared for whatever uncertainties lie ahead with the HORAN Campus Health team. Our consultants work with you to coordinate your campus’s health resources, connect you with our proprietary health partnerships and work to ease the administrative burden so you can focus on your big-picture goals.  

We’re more than your guide to the best health insurance options for your campus; we’re your committed health team working to serve the diverse needs of your unique campus community. Let us quickly guide you to the best options for you: fill out a simple contact form or get in touch with Chris Mihin, Vice President and Managing Principal of HORAN Campus Health, at ChrisM@horanassoc.com or 513.702.3707.