Every Wednesday, usually around 5:30 p.m., Berry students, faculty and staff receive an email from the Office of the President containing the latest news about COVID-19. The email, written by Berry College President Steve Briggs, usually starts on a positive note, mentioning how great it is to have everybody back on campus, how he hopes students enjoyed the long weekend, or he reflects on students’ participation in multiple on-campus activities, complete with pictures. He then provides statistics on the current COVID-19 rates in Rome and in Floyd County.
In the Sept. 1 update, Briggs stated that a teenage boy in Rome and a Berry alumna with young children died as a result of COVID- 19 complications. In the Sept. 8 update, he informed the student body that a 24-year-old, healthy basketball coach at Shorter University died from COVID- 19 complications. After he relays this depressing information, he then reminds students about the direness of COVID-19, especially in Rome and Floyd County, where the vaccination rates continue to be well below the national average. He tells us to be careful, to wear a mask indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces all in the name of keeping the Berry Community safe. Given the current state of COVID-19, especially in Rome and Floyd County, these guidelines seem pretty reasonable.
“But wait, there’s more!” the email seems to say. “I know I just gave some super depressing statistics about COVID- 19 and how you should be careful, but before I go, let me fill you in on all these events that are happening on campus and off-campus in Rome!”
Wait a second, didn’t Briggs just tell us how COVID-19 is especially devastating in nearby towns? Didn’t he just inform us of the heartbreaking news that more and more healthy young people are dying of COVID-19? If the reality of COVID-19 is as severe in Rome as the weekly Wednesday emails claim it is, why is he constantly mentioning off-campus travel and activities in and around Rome?
According to the New York Times, there has been an average of about 113 COVID-19 cases per day in Floyd County. The month of September currently has the highest average number of COVID-19 cases in Floyd County since infection rates were first reported in March of 2020. Both Floyd Medical Center and Redmond Regional Medical Center have over 95% occupancy in their Intensive Care Unit, and the current percentage of people vaccinated in Floyd County is 36%.
With this in mind, it seems strange that Briggs would call attention to opportunities for off-campus travel in his weekly emails. It’s understandable that he might not want to come off as too strict or authoritative and allow students to make their own choices. Still, regardless of his intent, the mixed messages in his weekly emails can be rather confusing.
While college students are very capable of measuring the risks and benefits of the choices they make and do not need the president of their college to decide for them, it can be a little unnerving not knowing what the college administration expects of students. For example, how would a member of the Berry administration react upon hearing that a large group of students were seen dining indoors at a restaurant without masks? Would the students face repercussions for their choices or not? It’s hard to say how the administration would react in this scenario due to the lack of clarity in the President’s Office emails.
In order to avoid uncertainty, the Berry administration needs to create clearer guidelines stating what behavior they expect from the students of Berry during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a little daunting trying to figure out what kind of behavior is appropriate and inappropriate during COVID-19. Berry administration should also clarify if there are specific guidelines for unvaccinated students to follow and if these guidelines vary from those that pertain to fully vaccinated students.
People have faced so much uncertainty for the past year and a half due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In this time of great uncertainty, a point in the right direction from the Berry administration would be incredibly beneficial to the students of Berry College. While Berry students are old enough and wise enough to make their own decisions regarding off-campus travel, a little more clarification from Briggs would be greatly appreciated.