Katelynn Singleton, news editor
Taylor Corley, editor-in-chief
In the President’s Office Nov. 5 update, the college’s president, Steve Briggs, announced that Berry no longer requires individuals to wear masks in public indoor spaces. Faculty and staff are still allowed to require masks in their individual offices and classrooms.
During the summer, students and staff who were working on campus, were not required to wear masks due to the low COVID-19 case numbers in the area. According to Briggs, administration hoped they would be able to continue with masks being optional at the beginning of the year, but when the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase, especially in the Rome area, masks were required again.
“We got to school here, and we had to pull out all of our mitigation methods, particularly because we had a number of students and staff and faculty vaccinated, but the community around us was not vaccinated,” Briggs said.
The decision to lift the mandate followed the decrease in COVID-19 cases. According to Chief of Staff Debbie Heida, administration has been monitoring COVID-19 cases both on campus and in the surrounding community, and between Oct. 28 and Nov. 12, only four cases were reported on campus and the numbers of cases in Floyd County decreased.
Because there are very few cases on campus with no spread, and in the local area, numbers are decreasing as well, administration has decided that they can begin to relax mitigations.
“So the reason is because the numbers were looking good and, they’re sufficiently good, and we didn’t have any cases on campus this week,” Briggs said, referring to the week of Nov. 8. “We had three the week before, but, more importantly, the three cases were not connected.”
Heida also said that should cases spike again, on or off-campus, Berry is willing to return to mandating masks.
“It’s hard to say what might exactly serve as a trigger other than seeing cases climb, seeing things happening around us that would make us say we would be putting our community at risk if we didn’t take some additional action,” Heida said.
Dean of Students Lindsey Taylor said that Berry followed a 5% rule. When the Rome community had an infection rate of less than 5% of the population, Berry would remove the mask mandate. Taylor said that with the decrease in cases on campus, the mask mandate needed to be amended. Being reasonable with the mandate ensures that should the mandate be reinstated, individuals follow it.
“If the community members don’t feel like we’re reasonable when we can be, they start to ignore when we really need to be doing these mitigation strategies,” Taylor said.
Many professors have continued to require masks in their classes and offices. The communication department is continuing to require masks in Laughlin at all times, including in office spaces and classrooms. In an email to students, Secretary for the Communication Department, Haley Edmondson, said that the decision is due to students and staff being immunocompromised or living with people who are immunocompromised. According to Briggs, most students have been willing to comply with faculty requirements to wear a mask in order to protect the community, especially since masks are no longer required in most places.
“For some it’s the principle of individual choice and freedom and for others, it’s the principle of taking care of others and doing what’s good for the good of the community,” Briggs said. “I think that, as the pressure on the system decreases the tension around the principles also decreases.”
Part of a recent Executive Order signed by U.S. President Joe Biden signed is scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 11. Berry administration is currently working on what the order would mean for students, but Heida said that it is likely that Berry will either need to implement a vaccine requirement or continue weekly testing with mask requirements for employees who are not fully vaccinated. Students would be included in this order.
“We’re continuing to follow that to determine, how that will play out,” Heida said. “We’ll continue to watch.”
Students should be aware of the risks when going out into the Rome community and when traveling for Thanksgiving and Winter breaks. When going off-campus to crowded areas, where you don’t know individuals, wearing a mask is a safe strategy.
“You’ve got to use good judgement,” Taylor said. “Be safe, be aware. Protect yourself and others, that’s just being good humans.”
Heida does not currently know what the plans are for students returning for the spring semester. Due to the changing state of COVID-19 in Rome and in the country, it is unlikely that Berry will announce changes to the policy by early December. If there are going to be requirements for students to return, administration plans to let students know as soon as possible.
“We certainly don’t know enough on Nov. 11, to predict what we have to do for January,” Heida said.
Until administration announces plans for January, based on presidential executive orders and COVID-19 case numbers and spread, the college is still encouraging students, faculty and staff to get vaccinations.
“The best form of mitigation are vaccines, that’s just, the evidence is so clear now,” Briggs said. “You can look at it in multiple ways. And so we know that vaccines are very, very safe, and they’re very effective.”
According to Briggs, 97 to 98% of faculty are vaccinated and over 80% of students and staff are vaccinated.
“Another eight to 10% have had COVID beyond those who’ve been vaccinated, so we’re in the nineties in terms of one campus levels of some level of immunity,” Briggs said.
In partnership with Atrium Health Floyd, formerly known as Floyd Medical Center, Berry is offering free COVID-vaccines and boosters on Friday, Nov. 19 from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. Sign up for an appointment https://signup.com/go/bsOYomp.