Safe behaviors during covid: how behavior change principles may help get campus occupants through a pandemic

Sustainability and facilities professionals are uniquely positioned to lead campus efforts to encourage safe behaviors among campus occupants during this pandemic. What is your plan to keep students, staff, and faculty engaged in prolonged physical distancing and other measures to prevent coronavirus surges?


Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has the world confronted a global pandemic like COVID-19.

In these unprecedented times, we’re still learning how the pandemic impacts campus communities and beyond. We don’t know how long the virus will continue to be a threat. What we do know is that campuses will be undertaking considerable risks when allowing students to return, and that schools will be challenged with compliance as we all grow fatigued by restrictions.

Sustainability and facilities professionals are uniquely positioned to lead campus efforts to encourage safe behaviors among campus occupants during this pandemic. 

Think about it: fostering sustainability behaviors on campus has been shown to be effective when combining physical structures (easily locatable recycling and composting bins, motion-sensors on lights) with culture and communications (events and activities, student and employee peer educators, well-placed signage). Given that managing safety during the pandemic is effectively everyone’s responsibility, “we’re all in this together” means “all hands on deck” for coming together and creating strategies to prevent coronavirus surges.

GreenerU’s recommendations for fostering safe behaviors

In a white paper recently published by GreenerU, we outlined three recommendations to help campuses create a framework for safe occupant behaviors. Here we flesh out these ideas further:

  1. Create a clear vision around which you can build a culture of responsible behavior. Develop a unified and cohesive rationale that provides a clear “why” and vision for what your COVID-prevention strategy is: safety and well-being. The “what” we do and “how” we stay safe may change as we adapt to new science and guidelines, but it is important for everyone to rally behind a unified vision of safety and wellbeing for long-term success as we navigate the unknown. Create a pledge for safe behavior, which builds commitment that is adaptable to the specific “call-to-action” messaging for behaviors you will promote. 
  2. Create trust by providing rationale and connecting emotionally. When we want to promote specific behaviors, remember that we as humans want to be helpful and need a purpose. Frame your communication to students, staff, and faculty as a way for them to help by giving them clear direction on how they can be doing their part. In your communication, provide empathy and acknowledge the stress, uncertainty, and grief that COVID-19 has created around how the community engages with each other and how campus operations support safe interactions. Provide gratitude for the hard work that is being done and maximize the salience of COVID-19 by developing clear, memorable communication through crisply worded key messages and multiple delivery methods. 
  3. Provide effective and welcome feedback. People want to know how the campus is doing, and want to feel heard. Developing a rewards system is one way of providing feedback and encouraging/normalizing positive behavior. Contests, humor, trivia, and other games can be effective ways to keep relaying the message about preventing the spread of coronavirus. Having clear metrics—number of people tested, for example—for how the campus measures safe behavior is a way to show outcomes. Having ways that students, faculty, and staff can suggest ways to stay safe and provide feedback to the operations are also key.
Creative ideas from a community discussion

On July 30, GreenerU hosted a community discussion with facilities, sustainability, and administrative representatives from a diverse range of colleges, universities, high schools, and elementary schools around the country. Participants divided into small groups to discuss their ideas about behavior change management on campuses during a pandemic with an unforeseeable expiration date.

Whether schools are planning to open in the fall for in-person or online learning—and whether surges may send students back home after being on campus—the group came up with a number of suggestions.

Create a culture of responsible behavior

  1. Install physical distancing structures. Floor signs, plexiglass, and other distancing mechanisms in public areas are helpful to provide friendly reminders to stay a safe distance apart.
  2. Use a pledge system. As with sustainability pledges, encourage campus occupants to focus on the “why,” linking their actions back to the mission and values of the school.
  3. Get faculty, parent, and/or teacher buy-in. Depending on the students’ age group, all faculty, staff, teachers, and/or parents need to prepare to set an example for students. As with other culture changes, it will be critical to engage these responsible parties in a decision-making process to create plans for staying vigilant and keeping everyone on the same page.
  4. Get student buy-in. Tap existing student leadership and groups, clubs, teams, etc., to participate in brainstorming, communicating, and positively enforcing safe behaviors.

Maximize the salience of COVID-19

  1. Remember the rule of three. Messaging should be clear, simple, straightforward—and not contain any more than three takeaways.
  2. Stay positive. Doomy-gloomy signage can add to fatigue. Keep messaging inspiring.
  3. Be nimble. Information is changing, so be prepared to get new and different messages out through consistent and reliable channels.
  4. Customize signage with your school’s brand. Use your own institution’s students as models, rather than rely on stock photos—it helps people feel connected and committed. 

Engage with the community in multiple ways

  1. Host a mask contest. Encourage students to create funny, beautiful, creative and/or effective masks and host a series of photos on Instagram. Consider inviting a “celebrity” to judge.
  2. Use QR codes at sanitation and soap dispensing stations. Students can gain points for each time they practice sanitation that can be cashed in for rewards.
  3. Move to interactive ways of promoting safe behavior—and move beyond hand-outs and recorded instructions. You may not be able to have in-person meetings, but communication through Instagram Live events and personalized messages from staff creates memories and connections within the community.

At the end of the day, mitigation of climate change and responding to COVID pandemic are both about how we respond to the challenges of human behavior: how we live and interact with each other and the impact that has on our world. (Participants ended the discussion with some thoughts about increased waste due to the pandemic; MIT’s Office of Sustainability/MIT Medical offered some thoughts.)

COVID-19 has shown how interconnected we are, and how we depend on each other for our health and well-being. Sustainability professionals and facilities operators of educational institutions know all about how campus infrastructure, communication, and collaboration is essential for creating the environment for the desired behaviors of students to learn. We have the skills and knowledge to help—and save lives.

What are your thoughts and ideas? Connect with GreenerU via Twitter (@Greener_U) and share using under #covidcampusbehavior.

Is your school looking for help developing plans for campus occupancy this fall and beyond? GreenerU has extensive experience with facilitation for behavior and organizational change—we are here to help you figure out how to keep your campus safe during the pandemic. Talk to us today for more information—and click below for a fun video on how one high school principal addressed his student body.

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