The start of a school year always feels like a new beginning. Students flood the campus, eager for those fresh feelings of change, and as August becomes September, the University of Georgia comes to life, beaming bright red from its brick buildings to the Sanford Stadium lights.
This August, students were more eager than ever, yearning for a sense of normalcy after five months of living alone or being cooped up with their parents or roommates. In the coronavirus era, school reopenings have seemed like a milestone, a promising breakthrough that we are one step closer to returning to normal life. Looking back, the first two months of this school year were anything but normal, and UGA’s lively campus and supportive community have transformed into a messy battlefield.
As cases continue to surge, leaders in the UGA administration blame students, students pointe fingers at their peers, local journalists call on the school to take their own responsibility and parents criticize these stories, holding on to that initial sliver of hope that their child could have a normal college experience. This blame battle, stirred from valid emotional reactions, only divides the community, loosening our grip on the sensibility we need to face this pandemic. While there is no simple resolution, we must start by considering all perspectives.
An argument against school closures stems from the preexisting mental health crisis among college students. Extended periods of loneliness deteriorates mental and physical health over time, and social isolation and separation from the usual cohort of teachers and friends takes a toll on young people. According to an Active Minds survey, 80% of college students report that COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health, and stress or anxiety account for 91% of that effect on students’ lives.
Many parents have expressed concerns over this issue, and rightfully so. While shutting down may not be the answer, parents need to understand that the current state of college communities is only inducing stress and anxiety among students. Further, universities should address collegiate mental health during this pandemic and consider the challenges that come with actually testing positive.
UGA students accounted for 99% of the positive tests reported through DawgCheck during the first week of September. Many young people in the Athens community engage in irresponsible and reckless activity, and most need to consider and respect the university’s deliberate efforts to provide in-person instruction. On the other hand, with open classrooms, a lively bar scene and little to no behavioral guidelines, it is unrealistic to expect students not to socially gather. By placing the blame entirely on students, university officials undermine their own leadership.
UGA is not the only school divided into this battlefield of blame. Universities across the U.S. face challenges when it comes to limiting and restricting social gatherings, and students weigh the consequences of snitching, another internal battle that heightens stress and anxiety. Although college officials have issued desperate demands, threatened suspension and implemented risky isolation measures, their attempts seem more divisive than productive.
The start of this school year is more than a new beginning. It is an extraordinary experiment within college communities, and we are living through trial and error together. Under these circumstances, chaos and controversy are inevitable. Yet, this blame battle is in the broken record stage. We need to consider other perspectives and remind ourselves that we are battling a pandemic, not each other. From students and parents to faculty and staff, we’re each a piece of UGA’s spirited, supportive and unique community. It’s time to leave the battlefield and face this reality together