When Adri Rosario attended a Zoom meeting with other Peer Advisors about Mercer University’s plan to reopen campus for orientation, there was only one step she felt comfortable taking: she resigned from her position.
“The PAs were presented with information about orientation, and it was suggested that not everyone will be able to socially distance at all times,” said Rosario, a junior. “It was really difficult because I really love my job as a PA. I really wouldn’t give that up for anything, like, so easily, but I think that given the current plans, I needed to step down.”
Pablo Valentin, coordinator of new student programs, told The Cluster in an email that he outlined “every detail of (the) plan that we had for everything from PA Training straight through Opening Days and Bear Beginnings” in the Zoom meeting. Bear Beginnings is a first-year program held the weekend before classes start to guide freshmen through their transition to college life.
The plan involved spreading out freshman students’ move-in process over a few days and changing the Bear Beginnings schedule “in order to shift the focus to small socially distanced O-Group (Orientation Group) activities rather than large Class of 2024 activities,” he said.
PAs were given several days to decide whether to renew their contracts in light of the new information. Valentin said that 10 PAs chose not to renew. There are still 54 PAs on the 2020-2021 team.
“We wanted to offer our Peer Advisors the best picture we could of what this year’s Bear Beginnings might entail and thought it was only fair to give them an option to consider whether or not they wanted to proceed in this volunteer position,” Valentin said. “While it was tough to have anyone not be able to be a part of the team, I completely understand that they needed to make that decision.”
The plan for orientation to be held in-person is part of Mercer University’s return to campus for fall 2020. Since March 15, most courses and activities have been held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Mercer’s website, administrators “continue to plan for fall semester classes on campus with reasonable and deliberate safeguards to protect students, faculty, staff and guests.”
Mercer has released plans to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus including required testing prior to the first day of class, modifications to dining services, increased sanitation procedures, mask requirements in most buildings and a revised academic calendar meant to limit student travel. The school has also launched the Bears Care initiative, which will distribute cloth masks, thermometers, hand sanitizer and more to students.
No online option is currently being developed, though students with documented health conditions are encouraged to contact the Office of Access and Accommodations. Mercer’s COVID-19 website suggests that virtual learning may be available as an accommodation.
PAs resigning is just one of several actions Mercer students have taken this summer in response to Mercer’s transition to in-person campus life.
Following her resignation, Rosario has helped lead protests to convince the administration to offer a distance learning option.
“I don’t want to pretend like this PA decision is unique in any way,” she said. “I think students are trying to decide, ‘do I continue my education or put it on pause so that I don't have to risk my life?’”
Rosario said Mercer’s plans aren’t enough to prevent transmission. She still worries about students who will travel to parts of Georgia where there are no public mask mandates (although masks are required in Macon-Bibb County until at least Aug. 20) and bring the virus back to school. She also said that the virus has been unpredictable when it comes to who will contract serious illness or die.
Rosario has spoken to local news media about her concerns. She emailed Mercer administrators and deans, helped fellow students do the same and spread the word about in-person and virtual protests that took place July 14. A handful of students gathered outside of the Godsey Administration Building while others flooded Mercer University’s social media with tweets, posts and comments asking for an online option.
if you told me 4 years ago that fighting for the health & safety of my professors/classmates would be this hard at #merceruniversity, I would’ve reconsidered coming here. if you are a potential student, please take note of their current social media to gain perspective pic.twitter.com/lRAOrygCn5
— Lilah Donnelly (@lilahhhd) July 16, 2020
Organized student protests began in early July when Thomas Eads, a senior, created a petition.
“I really didn't think that it was a huge, prominent, needed petition or anything like that. I thought maybe I was one of the few that kind of felt like that,” Eads said. “As I began talking to more of the student body and just, you know, my friends and acquaintances that I had on campus, I saw that there was a larger subset of students that wanted that option. And so I really didn't start it to even start up a stir. I just wanted to bring it to the administration and say, ‘Hey, this is how the students feel.’”
Honestly so glad I already graduated from #merceruniversity in the spring because the administration clearly does not care about the health of its students or faculty. @MercerYou change this. Keeping students and faculty safe should be the number one priority during this time.
— Karishma Patel (@karishma_p29) July 14, 2020
He cited overflowing local hospitals and the recent White House designation of Macon-Bibb County as a “red zone” for coronavirus cases as reasons to limit the number of students returning to campus. As hospitals grapple with a lack of space due to the influx of COVID-19 patients this summer, Eads said that there might not be infrastructure in place to assist students who need treatment if they return to Macon.
“If something were to happen with the student, regardless of if it's virus, or otherwise, you know, if a student drinks too much, or you know, falls or anything like that, that could send them to the hospital as well. There's not going to be a bed for them,” he said.
Eads isn’t asking Mercer to require all students to take their classes online in his petition. He said he just wants the option for students who prefer distance learning during the pandemic.
The petition has more than 1,600 signatures as of July 22.
If you want to attend in-person courses during this pandemic, I likely can’t stop you or change your mind. But you should still advocate for your peers that feel unsafe. Each individual student should at least be given option to choose between virtual or in-person learning.
— Aniya (@niyawatts) July 14, 2020
However, in an interview with The Telegraph, Senior Vice President for Marketing Communications and Chief of Staff Larry Brumley said that the administration does not consider student petitions.
“While we recognize that there are some students out there who are anxious about this and have concerns about this, we are also hearing from a good many students, both returning and incoming, that they are ready to be here. They’re ready to be back on campus,” Brumley said.
Brumley also acknowledged that there will be “some cases of the COVID-19 virus on campus,” according to The Telegraph. He said the school is equipped to care for any affected students.
Eads said he doesn’t think that Mercer will reverse their decision and provide an online option in response to the protests. He plans to enroll as a transient student at Georgia State University, which is offering many courses online this fall.
“Then Mercer doesn't get my money because I'm going transient somewhere else, and I'm just doing my credits there because they're offering an online option,” Eads said.
He said he’s not the only one who has plans to leave Mercer, temporarily or permanently, in the fall. Other students he has talked to have considered similar moves.
Why is it so hard for Universities to make the safety of their students too priority? Why must schools like @MercerYou force their students to choose between their education and their health?
— Heavenleigh Daniel (@HeavenleighDan) July 14, 2020
Rosario isn’t sure whether she will look for an alternative to Mercer. She believes the administration can be influenced by the court of public opinion.
On July 20, she created a YouTube video detailing Mercer’s policies and explaining why she doesn’t feel that they are sufficient to keep students safe this fall. The video had more than 3,800 views at press time.
At the end of the video, Rosario asked viewers to share the link, contact administrators and use social media to persuade Mercer’s administration to offer a distance learning option.
“Classes are set to begin Aug. 18, and many student groups will be moving in a week or two earlier. We need an online option and we need it now,” she said in the video. “That is why it has gotten to the point where I am asking the Internet to put pressure on Mercer University and tell them that they have to do more to protect their students, their staff, their faculty and their community.”
Mercer’s COVID-19 plans and policies can be found on their coronavirus website and online resource center The Den.