As college and university leaders grapple with decisions about how to best serve students in the midst of a pandemic, one of the biggest challenges they confront is how to make the on-campus dining experience safe. Unfortunately, there is no simple or guaranteed solution. But experts have begun to reach a consensus on key steps that all higher education institutions should be taking to both reassure students, parents and faculty, and minimize the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
The first thing to keep in mind regarding dining and other on-campus services is that transparency is key. In a time where uncertainty is ubiquitous and news changes by the hour, keeping an open line of communication with students and parents—and being honest about actions being taken or not taken—is vital to maintaining trust. A spring survey of high school seniors and current college students conducted by the higher education research group SimpsonScarborough found that 69% believed their institution’s communications around COVID-19 were fair or poor. While many students and parents were willing to cut institutions a break early in this crisis due to its unprecedented nature, as the fall semester gets underway, we can expect people to be far less tolerant of institutions that fail to communicate frequently and clearly.
Campus officials must also closely follow guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local health officials. That starts with ensuring dining facility workers are healthy and following recommended protocols. All workers should be provided with personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, undergo enhanced safety and hygiene training and be required to stay home if not feeling well. It may also mean taking workers’ temperatures before shifts.
New and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures must be put in place, including a deep clean of all front- and back-of-house areas before students return and at regular intervals during the year. There should also be frequent cleaning of high-touch areas and eating surfaces, and managers need to be ready to respond immediately to maintenance and cleanup requests.
Physical changes to dining areas will also be needed, such as installing plexiglass barriers at checkout, adding sanitizing stations and posting signage and behavioral “nudges” for employees and customers. While some students will be eager to get back to a normal routine of eating with friends, seating should be designed to allow students to eat alone or in small groups. Traffic flows should be adjusted to promote social distancing. And occupancy monitoring must be established to avoid overcrowding.
Colleges and universities should also be investing in and expanding the use of emerging technologies to enable contactless dining experiences. For example, self-order kiosks and touchless self-checkout terminals can be installed. Dining facilities should consider offering mobile ordering and contactless pick-up or desk delivery.
Alternative service offerings should also be available, such as individually packaged grab-and-go meals and easy-to-assemble prepare-at-home options. Setting up micro markets and pop-up groceries will make it easier for customers to purchase food to be prepared at home. And to alleviate concerns about multiple individuals touching a single, shared surface, most hot bars, make-your-own sandwich stations and salad bars will have to go.
These new protocols and offerings are increasingly expected of campus dining facilities. A survey conducted by McKinsey & Company asking what would entice students to participate in meal plans found that 41% of students want the ability to use their meal plans to buy groceries, 38% want dining options open 24/7, 27% want the ability to order food using an online app, and 20% want delivery to on-campus locations. The same survey found that 58% of parents expect to receive regular updates on dining safety on campus. Those numbers will only grow.
Also read: Meeting gluten-free needs in the dining hall
Perhaps most importantly, colleges and universities will need to remain flexible. Guidelines from health experts are changing rapidly, and institutions must be ready and willing to quickly adjust their dining facility protocols to keep up.
The on-campus dining experience may need to change, but with careful planning, our institutions of higher learning can continue to provide a safe and healthy environment for both workers and students through these unprecedented times.
Trevor Ferguson is field president of Aramark Higher Education. Aramark recently launched EverSafe™, a platform designed to promote safety in dining and other facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The platform was developed in partnership with Jefferson Health, a leading expert in public health.