By Natalie Simms
After Berry College had to abruptly close campus and transition to online learning in mid-March as the initial coronavirus wave hit Georgia, school officials hoped the pandemic would ease by fall. But as cases soared locally and across the state in July, Berry College President Dr. Steve Briggs knew major preparations would need to be made for students to return this month in a well and stable environment.
“June looked optimistic but then July happened…it was clear it would not be an easy fall,” says Briggs. “But we prepared and were confident we could open in a well, stable environment here at the college for our students and staff.”
Berry took a three-step approach to putting together a “Healthy Together” plan and managing the risk of COVID on campus. This included managing the transition of several thousand people back to campus (minimizing); managing boundaries with the community (monitoring); and managing interactions on campus (containing).
“In the transition, we tested all students, faculty and staff before they could return to campus. So, before the start of class, we tested 2,589 students and staff and of that, we had 37 that tested positive. Most of those were at home and isolated at home before returning to campus. That was only a 1.4% positive rate, which we were delighted with compared to looking at statewide number of 10% positive rate,” says Briggs.
“We love in-person teaching and wanted our students on campus this semester but we knew that would mean interactions with the community. There has been a high prevalence locally of the virus, so we have restricted access to campus until things stabilize in the community.”
Students and staff are screened every day by completing a symptom checker via an online app and taking temperatures. For example, temperatures are taken before anyone enters the Dining Hall.
Dean of Students Lindsey Taylor says they have provided all students with a COVID care kit that includes a digital thermometer, face masks, hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
“We encourage them to self-monitor so they can take their temperature each day before going to class,” she says. “We also have a health portal where students and employees enter any symptoms daily so we can look for any areas of concern. Our commuter students do this as well; they are screened daily just like our employees.”
The third area of management is controlling the interactions on campus. This includes mandatory face masks for everyone on campus and keeping socially distanced when possible.
“We know that being on campus, we are more densely populated so that is a risk but we are trying to minimize it as much as possible. We’ve encouraged students to keep distance. Many classrooms have been moved outside. Many more are dining outside,” says Briggs. “I saw some students playing a pick-up basketball game yesterday and they all had face masks on. We are very pleased with the compliance on campus to minimize the spread.”
Berry junior Stahr Stembel says she is staying in more and doing her best to stay healthy so they can stay on campus the entire semester.
“I do wear a mask everywhere and I encourage my friends to do the same. I haven’t seen many people not wearing masks when they should be. I do have hand sanitizer in my backpack, car and room and use it as often as possible,” she says.
“Mentally, it is challenging just to balance a new year and COVID and truly not having answers to anything. But I have hope that we (students, faculty, staff and administration) are on the same side in this fight. We play different roles and bring different perspectives but I have hope we are all working hard to be able to stay the whole semester.”
Briggs says Berry has invested more than $400,000 so far in testing and safety modifications on-campus including new filtration in dorms and plexiglass in classrooms.
“For us, it is a matter of highest priority for us to be on campus and have in-person instruction. Our Life Works program only works if our students are here,” he says. “So, it is expensive, but it would be more so to not be in-person, so it’s an investment that is important to make.”
Briggs says travel budgets have been slashed, especially not having fall athletics, so the savings in those areas have covered the expenses for COVID management.
Berry has limited local travel of students to essential needs, at least for the first month of school. All students are expected to restrict travel to the immediate Rome community for trips to the grocery, pharmacy, gas station or places of worship. Extended travel outside the immediate Rome area is restricted, at least for the first month of school. However, exceptions can be made after students complete a travel form and receive approval.
“We do track their movement on and off campus. We know they will run out for takeout or to the grocery store. We’ve encouraged them to avoid throngs of people or places where they may put their guard down,” says Briggs. “But our students have really missed Berry and missed being here since March, so they want to stay on campus and are doing their best to stay safe.”
And so far, the plan is working. Students have been on campus now for three weeks and as of Sept. 2, only had three positive student cases. They have 11 more weeks in the semester to get to Thanksgiving. Students will take finals online the first week of December and not return to campus until Jan. 11.
“We are now going to carefully phase in athletic practices according to NCAA guidelines. We have started back with tennis, volleyball, soccer, football and lacrosse…we are beginning to make things feel more normal,” says Briggs. “But we will continue to be vigilant so we can be here.”
Taylor says they have stepped up weekend programs to keep students entertained on campus.
“We have movie nights, hikes during the day or sand volleyball tournaments. We are being more intentional with our packaging of events to really have something that would interest a variety of students,” she says.
“Events are limited to 50 students or less and registration is required but we are making sure we have multiple offerings…like we had a trivia event three different times last weekend so everyone could attend.”
It is working for senior Berkeley Hawks. “I’m grateful to be on campus my senior year, that’s for sure! Campus life looks a lot different…students stay on campus more and we try not to eat out. Wearing masks around campus is enforced everywhere and Berry has made accommodations in common areas to account for social distancing,” she says.
“I’m sad there are no sports this semester but understand that we are taking these precautions to possibly have a season next semester. I really hope my class and I get our senior season. But I’m confident God has everything under control and I’m praying that we as a campus remain safe for the entirety of the semester.”
Looking ahead, Berry already is preparing for a ‘virtual’ Mountain Day experience to celebrate Martha Berry’s birthday on Oct. 10. The annual homecoming tradition typically brings upwards of 7,000 or more to campus.
“There is no way we can envision having 7,000 alumni on campus for Mountain Day. So we are doing ‘Mountain Day in a Box’ with a virtual kit distributed to alumni so they can do it at home,” says Briggs.
Taylor says they are encouraging students to think ‘outside the box’ for activities on campus. She is meeting weekly with her student advisory committee to develop creative ideas.
“We are looking at anything we can do and be playful to really celebrate Mountain Day in the middle of a pandemic,” she says.
Berry has a great website on its ‘Healthy Together’ plan, complete with frequently asked questions for students and staff, as well as weekly updates on campus life for students. Click here to read more.