Preparing for the Fall – Considerations for Returning to Campus

In May, the cast of Friends reunited after 17 years since filming their last episode.  The reunion episode brought colleagues back together and created a space for those colleagues to reflect on the time they spent together and the time they were apart.   In many ways, getting to the start of the 2021-2022 academic year has felt like 17 years.  Almost all of our educational institutions have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way.  Whether institutions opted to remain virtual, move to a hybrid model, or limited their capacity, this past academic year looked different.  Zoom fatigue became a real thing as classes, advising, and programs predominantly moved online.  

As fans eagerly awaited the Friends reunion, education institutions are similarly awaiting the return to campus in the Fall.  Faculty, staff, and students are going to be reunited.  Coming together during an ongoing pandemic brings a set of challenges many institutions have not faced before. Plaid has provided a list of areas we encourage institutions to consider as the Fall semester approaches.  

Mental Health and Well-Being 

This past year has shined a light on many of society’s issues with mental health and well-being coming to the forefront of educational conversations and needs for support. Students, as well as organization leaders, have reported high rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. This is also occurring while support systems like university counseling centers have reported being understaffed with an increase in demand, even prior to the pandemic.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the percentage of students that screened positive for major depression had doubled from 2009 to 2019 from 8% to 18%. A survey from the American College Health Association (ACHA) showed 20% of institutions reported unexpected staff reductions in mental health and counseling staff and 44% of institutions reported a reduction in Student Health Services budget during summer 2020. Additionally, students from marginalized communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and its economic effects and may be at an elevated risk for experiencing mental health concerns. As the U.S. returns to in-person socialization, public events, and gathering, reports of social anxiety and unease with being in those spaces closed off for over a year have been frequent. The need for mental health and wellbeing education is more important now more than ever.

Providing training on recognizing mental health concerns cannot only help those currently experiencing a mental health concern, but can proactively help students develop the knowledge they need to cope with mental health concerns they may experience and support others in the future. As a part of the Tightrope program, Plaid has developed an online course focused on mental health that provides information about common mental health issues, how to recognize mental health issues with yourself and others, and provides resources for dealing with these issues.

Generation Z: Getting to Know Your Students 

Today’s Generation Z students (born 1995-2010)are coming to campus with different perspectives, values, aspirations, and behaviors than the generations that came before them. Even prior to the pandemic, they were viewing the college experience through a different lens. This means their hopes for their student experience will necessitate adaptations in the way colleges and universities serve students. Below are six considerations for planning for the fall and welcoming Generation Z students back to campus: 

  • Generation Z was born and raised in a digital world.
  • They are focused on career development and job preparation. 
  • They are motivated by relationships and desire to do good. 
  • They celebrate diversity and aim for more inclusion. 
  • They are concerned about finances, safety, and the environment. 
  • They are comfortable learning independently, but enjoy experiential and hands-on opportunities.  

Understanding today’s student population is a foundational first step in designing engagement experiences. From designing training and learning experiences to advising and communicating with students, keeping the unique perspectives of Generation Z students should be at the forefront of planning and process development. To learn more about Generation Z, Plaid offers training experiences and consulting to help elevate the student and campus experience.  

 Risk Management and Prevention Programs

One challenge institutions will face in the Fall is familiarizing three sets of students with campus policies and procedures.  First-year students who are beginning their time at the institution, second-year students who may have never stepped onto campus, or did so with COVID-related restrictions, and other returning students all will be eager to embrace the full experience of their institution.  Subsequently, all students have desired the social interactions they have missed over the last year.  Regardless of academic year, the return to campus and the social environment may present challenges related to student safety and risk management.  It will require more than just communicating campus policies and disciplinary procedures to students. Providing proper risk management and prevention programs can be a great first step in supporting students to safely return to the campus social environment by helping them develop the knowledge and skills they need to make informed and responsible decisions.   

Plaid has created a risk management program that provides all students with the important baseline knowledge they will need as they return to campus. The Tightrope program provides practical education for undergraduate students on the topics of alcohol and other drug use, hazing, and sexual misconduct.  Designed as online modules, students navigate through the interactive courses at their own pace to gain better knowledge and perspective about managing their risk to gain better knowledge and perspective about the hazards they may encounter during college and how to make smarter, safer decisions.  This series provides the education, skills, and tools necessary for students to successfully navigate the tightrope between a risky situation and an enlightening college experience. Tightrope also serves as a great primer or refresher learning opportunity that can be paired with in-person community discussions and training experiences.  

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives 

The rapid transition to a remote learning environment brought issues of access and equity to the forefront of higher education.  Many institutions continued remote learning for most of the 2020-2021 academic year.  Opportunities for conversations and programs around diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives turned virtual which took away the opportunity to blend virtual learning with impactful in-person experiences.  During this time the country continued to be impacted by significant events, such as the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise in hate crimes against Asian American people, that elevated the need for dialogue and critical thinking around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.  As shared by Kelli Pelletier for EduCause, both institutions and organizations can develop a sense of belonging and create inclusive spaces “by ensuring that students feel seen, feel heard, and are encouraged to think differently.”  

Critical conversations and change initiatives regarding DEI  can be elevated when students have a shared understanding of the importance of these topics.  Online learning programs establish that foundational knowledge.  Plaid has created an online learning course called Inclusive Practices, which discusses the importance of inclusion and respect that can drive behavioral change. Plaid will continue to add to our DEI courses in the 2021-2022 academic year. 

Returning to campus this Fall does not have to mean going back to the normalcy of what didn’t work or didn’t elevate the student experience. In many ways coming back is an opportunity to start new processes or traditions and let the practices that undermined the missions of institutions and organizations fade away.

As leaders at colleges and universities across the country prepare for a Fall semester unlike any other, the Plaid team is happy to provide support. Through online learning technology, training and education opportunities, data and research solutions, and organizational development consulting, Plaid is primed to support institutions as they welcome students back to campus this Fall. To connect with a member of our team about our programs, products, and services, please email

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