Dave Kelly – America’s Student Leadership Trainer
YOUR STUDENT GOVERNMENT IN A POST-COVID WORLD
Imagine a dystopian world where people stay inside their home most of the time, wearing a mask when they do go out, avoiding human contact, and any contact or communication that happens is controlled by machines…
The latest Terminator movie? Maybe. But truth can be stranger than fiction and, of course, this has been our experience for over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some states and many countries are still in various stages of lockdown or quarantine, businesses are closed or at less than full capacity, and college and university campuses are still missing some or all of their students. I have worked with a lot of student governments during this past year and I am amazed and encouraged by the outstanding leadership they have displayed. These SGA leaders have pivoted how they do business, serve and represent their students, and make the educational experience at their school the best it can be despite the difficult circumstances.
It seems that the path forward for the 2021-2022 school year continues to evolve for large numbers of campuses with regard to class attendance, activities, programs, and student government. Some of the schools I have spoken with still expect to be either fully virtual or will implement a hybrid virtual/inperson plan for classes and campus events.
Others will be in person while wearing masks and socially distanced, as some did this past year. And I read recently that over 300 universities will require COVID-19 vaccinations in some form for the start of the 2021-22 academic year. What is still unclear is if non-campus personnel (speakers, bands, comedians, novelties, etc.) will be allowed on campus and how clubs, organizations, and student governments will function. I do not think the post-COVID-19 world is going to look the same as it did pre-COVID-19 so adopting a new way of working for the various aspects of student government functioning will be necessary.
First, consider how technology affects the future of your student government.
Prior to last spring, the only on-line virtual platform I had ever used was Skype and then only to talk with my family when traveling. In the last year, my experience with virtual platforms has mushroomed: I have presented on Zoom, BlueJeans, Cisco WebEx, Blackboard, Microsoft Teams, and in a virtual world as an avatar. I have done over 140 virtual programs, along withcountless meetings, while looking at a webcam attached to my laptop. I know you have spent much time in front of your computer, as well. In fact, we have all spent so much time looking at screens that there’s a name for it: Zoom fatigue.
Despite all the looking at screens for hours, dropped connections, and people hidden behind profile pictures and names, there are positive uses of technology for all campus clubs and organizations, including student governments. Virtual meeting platforms enable people, who might not otherwise attend due to conflicts and other commitments, to participate from home, work, or wherever they may be. And if they can’t attend live, they can view a recording. You can increase the representative reach of your student government by including on-line students and those at satellite and extension campuses by using a virtual platform to bring them to you. Study Abroad and internship students may no longer need to resign their positions just because they are spending a semester away from campus. In short, technology has the ability to meet everyone where they are and allows more opportunities for engagement.
So, even when you are completely back on campus, I strongly encourage you to continue using the virtual options available to you during meetings, rallies, programs, events, advocacies, etc. A real world example is my Kiwanis club (a community service organization). We were allowed back in-person, socially distanced, by the state last July. We have 20 members on our roster. About 9-10 come to our weekly lunch meetings on-site, another 3-5 attend through Zoom because of work, travel, health, and other issues. We record those meetings and place them on YouTube and our Facebook page which gets us 4-7 more members who watch those videos each week. We are getting near perfect attendance, whereas it would be only half without the virtual elements! Think about how this example works for you with student issue forums, SGA election campaigns, and getting representation in multi-campus settings.
Go Hybrid With Your Meetings
Student governments are the voice of the students and hearing diverse opinions benefits the work that you do on behalf of your student body. Many schools that I work with have a representative body of clubs and organizations. They may be included in the Senate, as a separate house of the SGA legislature, or in a Presidents or Clubs Council. Getting full participation from clubs and organizations can be a challenge. Provide the option for involvement using a webcam on a laptop or even an app on a cell phone such as FaceTime or Google Meet. Use an external webcam and aim it at the meeting room. My Kiwanis club uses multiple devices to show all parts of the room and everyone who is present. You can dramatically increase your engagement by doing this and encourage the virtual participants to unmute, have their cameras on for accountability and connection, and use chat to express themselves during discussions. Assign someone or even several people to monitor the chat so those voices are heard.
Explore Your Options
You can do things virtually that may be impossible in person. I have had occasions where I have done four or five programs a day with schools from across the country. Imagine how much more engaging, productive, and interesting your student government would be if you use technology to bring experts and advocates into your meetings to discuss current issues and topics relevant to your students and campus community. You can reach out to legislators and other decision makers to share your opinions on upcoming bills or policies and have many student voices share their thoughts rather than just a couple who may be able to make a trip to the state capitol or a city council meeting. On top of having a diversity of speakers, you can also incorporate surveys, quizzes, polling, voting, break-out discussions, and more with the plethora of free and low-cost tools that are now available.
Some Issues To Address
Technology aside, there are other concerns student governments should consider in the post COVID-19 world. Your SGA is the representative voice of the students. That voice needs to be heard on issues such as:
• Policies for the 2021-22 school year related to how classes will be conducted, if students can come on campus for events and programs, whether mask wearing and social distancing will continue to be required, and how they will be enforced. What will the ramifications be for those who violate policies either intentionally or accidentally?
• Will coronavirus testing and/or vaccinations be required? What will this standard be? As stated earlier, over 300 colleges are planning on requiring vaccinations in some form this fall. How long will those requirements be in place? In perpetuity or until a set time?
• Where does your student government stand on vaccination passports? Who can request that a member of the campus community prove that they have one? When can such a request be made? Can faculty members require it before a student can attend class in-person?
• How can your student government encourage and facilitate discussions of social justice and advocacy around issues and incidents that have happened during the time away from campus?
• Are mental health services available for students who need help going from isolation to trying to integrate into the campus? Remember, you may have two classes of students coming to campus this fall who have not yet stepped foot on campus There are going to be other issues on campus and in your community as reopening occurs. Your student government needs to be ready to address them and to pivot to new and ever-changing realities.
Update Your Guidance
Finally, this is a good time to make sure governing documents such as your constitution, by-laws, standing rules, and policies and procedures are updated and reflect current realities. Look for redundancies, outdated gender usage (he/she instead of they/them), and other concerns raised by the pandemic. I have reviewed many governing documents this past year and observed some pandemic-related issues. A big one is that these documents did not provide for circumstances such as extended campus shutdowns. Several schools did not have a line of succession. This was especially problematic in one case where both the SGA president and vice-president dropped out of school. The governing documents did not have a clause that allowed the replacement of those officers. I was able to help them by applying parliamentary procedure to their situation and then helped them write the clauses they needed.
A few schools could not elect anyone to their student government because their governing documents required candidate petitions to be signed by 25 to 100 fellow students. How do you obtain student signatures when no one is on campus? While you could use on-line petitions in a pinch, it is more important that your governing documents include an Emergency Powers clause. Here is one that I wrote for a student government that you are welcome to copy and adapt for your school:
In addition to any other emergency powers numerated in this constitution, the advisor shall have the authority to supersede portions of this document in order to continue the proper functioning of the SGA. These emergency powers can be invoked in case of local, state, national, or global crisis, emergency, or pandemic, in response to a declaration of emergency by government officials, and/or at the direction of the College President or designee.