Businesses, apps shift focus to help students in a time of quarantine

How companies are pivoting to heed the call of worldwide emergency.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt daily life, many apps and businesses are switching their focus to attend to the call of those in need – particularly college students – who may need extra help in the face of the pandemic.

U-Haul, for example, offered free 30-day storage and transport for college students who were affected by the coronavirus. This is the first time U-Haul extended the offer to a group outside of those affected by natural disasters such as flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires.

“We did (this) because there became such an obvious need for immediate help once colleges began to suspend in-person classes, and then progressed to shutting down campuses,” Jeff Lockridge, U-Hauls’ Manager of Media and Public Relations, said in an email.

“We knew this would inevitably leave millions of students with decisions to make about how and when to move back home,” Lockridge said. “It was the right thing to do, and we are fortunate to have the facilities and ability to help.”

Lockridge said the offer will remain through the spring and into the summer.

“We’re thrilled to have college students as one of the most loyal and appreciative demographics we serve,” he said.

Google Stadia – a video game streaming service powered by Google – is giving users two months free in an attempt to keep people at home and to adhere to social distancing measures. This came about two weeks after the World Health Organization recommended playing video games as a way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and maintain social connection.

Apart from U-Haul and Google Stadia, one app that pivoted its focus is “Nod.” Developed by Hopelab and Grit Digital Health, Nod is a health and fitness app that uses evidence-based strategies such as positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Cultivating resiliency is important as many deal with the immense stress and anxiety brought about by COVID-19. Resiliency is the ability to keep moving forward stronger than ever despite hardships, difficulties, failures and traumatic events, according to Psychology Today.

Nod also provides social connection tips and tools to help students stay connected with one another while following social distancing and “safer-at-home” orders.

“We specifically wanted to focus on loneliness, and social connection,” said Margaret Laws, president and CEO of Hopelab.

Hopelab is a social innovation lab that works on interventions to help improve health and the well-being of teens and young adults.

“The reason we were focusing on loneliness is because loneliness is a predictor of and precursor to depression, anxiety and suicide,” Laws said.

In 2019 the American College Health Association found that 65.6% of student respondents felt “very lonely” within the past 12 months. That’s up from 62.8% in 2018.

Initially, Nod was supposed to release this fall on college campuses with one of the key features asking college students to have face-to-face interactions with other students.

Because of the pandemic, however, Laws said the team at Nod worked for two-weeks to make changes on the app and help college students during social isolation.

“So one of the things we had to do was to rewrite the content,” she said. “Virtually many of the activities are still the same. We just had to make it so that you could do them over zoom or by phone, or simultaneously, asynchronously while apart.”

Laws hopes that the app and the evidenced-based practices can give Nod the impact and outcomes they are looking for.

As loneliness numbers rise, the need to stay connected is at an all-time high. USC is doing its part in addressing the loneliness epidemic.

Recently, USC’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life hired Cat Moore to be the first Director of Belonging. Moore’s job is to create experiences and resources to help students “deepen their social interactions” especially during the pandemic, Annenberg Media reported.

Social interactions are important because they help improve students’ moods and mental health.

Marientina Gotsis, an associate professor and director of the Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center at USC, said that people without social support suffer more in times of physical distancing. She said that intimacy and closeness in human relationships are both “material” and “spiritual.”

As the pandemic continues to change what is considered normal, Laws said this will be a “wake-up call” for apps and businesses moving forward.

“This big, big focus on making mental health supports and emotional health supports available to people is going to continue,” Laws said. “This is going to be a moment where some of these shifts are going to be permanent big shifts.”