Covid and Leadership

A Year of Essays: January 1, 2022

On the last day of 2021, the number of Covid cases in my county doubled. Similarly, the Washington Post today reports the 7-day average number of cases increased 99% over this past week. Many universities announced they will go online for the month of January. Four days ago, Virginia Tech announced boosters would be required, residential students would need a negative test within 72 hours of returning to campus, and masks will be required for indoor spaces. Three days ago, Hollins University announced similar measures, also restricting any non-academic events to 10 people; this caused the cancellation of its Winter Festival of New Works, in which one of my plays would be featured.

That was a disappointment, of course. So many on the creative team had devoted considerable time and effort to producing my play. I am grateful to every one of them.

However, the greater disappointment is my own university’s response to the burgeoning Covid crisis. I am certain that sometime next week, an announcement will be made. Yet as of today, neither a booster requirement nor indoor mask mandate exists. I can pivot any which way I need. Many others cannot, and the delays in announcing changes cause greater anxieties and frustration.

Leadership is a tricky concept. The best leaders find a way to balance consensus building and autocracy. After all, the buck stops with a leader, one who should make well-informed decisions based on good counsel from experts. Consensus builders make weak leaders — they want to please everyone, and since everyone doesn’t always agree, the thought of disappointing others can cause indecision and ineffectiveness.

In this pandemic era, leaders must act on ethics and, yes, morals. Neither of the U.S. presidents during the past two years have met these fully; the former president downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic resulting in a disastrous federal response, and the current president has not pushed the moral imperative of providing vaccine support to the developing world. For the wealthiest country in the world to have the highest number of cases and deaths worldwide while sniggling over intellectual property rights and big pharma revenue is abhorrent and abominable.

And likewise, academic leaders must act on ethics and morals. In two weeks, our students will likely be returning to campus. If they should be boostered two weeks prior to their return, they haven’t yet been informed. If we spend the first few weeks online, should they even come to campus yet? The CDC has said N95 and KN95 masks are the most effective barrier to transmission. Will those be supplied to students, faculty, and staff? We have another issue in Virginia: a new Republican governor on January 15th, three days before the start of the spring term. With the stroke of a pen, he could wipe out any vaccination or mask mandates at public institutions. If that happens, I hope my university’s administration will hold the line (if we ever get a line) to ensure we are all as safe as possible.

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David Russell Beach

David Russell Beach

David Beach is playwright/writer, director, dramaturg, and educator. He holds a PhD in education and an MFA in playwriting, and is a professor at Radford U.