Petitions for change: Community outcry and Berry’s reversed COVID-19 response

By Ben Allee, Viking Fusion News Producer

MOUNT BERRY, Ga. — After widespread backlash from the Berry community calling the school to suspend its operation, Berry’s administration extended spring break and moved to online classes; students and faculty believe their voices influenced the decision.

On Thursday afternoon, the president’s office sent a school-wide email detailing plans to continue operation after Berry’s spring break, which was scheduled to end on March 15. 

Using social media and direct communication with the administration, the Berry community immediately vocalized its disapproval with the plan, calling for Berry to follow the example of other schools in Georgia and across the U.S. by suspending its operation.

Only a day later, an email from the president’s office announced a change in plans and detailed the new course of action. In the Friday morning email, President Steven Briggs cited a press conference from Governor Brian Kemp and a national consensus as its motivation for the shift.

“The Governor ‘issued a call for action,’ and recommended that schools in Georgia consider closing for two weeks,” Briggs said in his email. “That recommendation was not mandatory, but it dovetails with a larger national consensus, an organic movement if you will, that is aimed at curbing the spread of covid-19 virus at this critical juncture.”

Berry students and faculty, however, believe their disapproval of the plan influenced Berry’s reversal. This disapproval reached the administration through emails, phone calls, interaction with Berry’s social media pages, and even an online petition.

Sophomore Rachel Heiter was one of many who voiced her concerns on social media, and she believes that Berry’s reversal came at least in part due to these pressures.

She is not alone. A Berry College professor, who wishes to remain anonymous, said in a message to some of his/her students that the administration’s reversal resulted from the pressure of the faculty, staff, and students of Berry.

Heiter, for instance, used her Instagram story to ask students to sign the petition, which she found on the social media platform Reddit. She also provided information about the University System of Georgia’s decision to suspend operation.

Dr. Christina Bucher, a professor of English, rhetoric, and writing at Berry, expressed her thoughts through a comment on the petition’s online page. She said that although she would rather teach classes in person, Berry’s original decision endangered the community. 

“I am so disappointed in President Briggs’ announcement that we will stay open today. We are NOT as insular as he claims,” Bucher said in her comment.

Overheard At Berry, an anonymously-run social media account that posts Berry-related comedy content, used its Instagram story to support the petition and called for students to sign, including a link to the document in its Instagram profile bio.

As of Friday morning, the petition’s online page reports that it accomplished its goal through a total of 578 supportive responses. 

Heiter cited two reasons for her support of the petition, saying that she herself has a compromised immune system and would be at high risk if she contracted the virus, and that it would be prudent for Berry to limit the threat of spread by cancelling class. 

“[I] think [B]erry saw the public outcry due to the petition, plus the direct phone calls and social media engagement, and the closing of [S]horter and the USG as signs they needed to make a change for the benefit of all people involved,” Heiter said.

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