SGA tackles COVID-19, campus concerns

Brielle Lonsberry and Kyle Smith pose for a photo together during their undergraduate SGA campaign. // Photo courtesy of Brielle Lonsberry.

Amid COVID-19 concerns, the Student Government Association (SGA) has taken many steps to facilitate an easier transition to Tech this semester and create guidelines that protect the student community. 

Student body president, Brielle Lonsberry, fourth-year BME, said that she has been heavily involved in the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, an entity working to ensure that Tech can open safely this semester. 

“I’ve personally been able to help with academic policies, this hybrid structure, plans for testing on campus and bringing students back for research.” 

She added that other students have joined her in subcommittees to help. Lonsberry stated that most students have followed protocols well. 

“Unfortunately, we’re humans, so there’s always going to be times when there’s not full compliance. Hopefully, a lot can be solved by positive encouragement from other students and Tech community members.”

While adjusting to the pandemic has been one of their top priorities so far, SGA has also been working on a variety of other topics.

“With all the racial justice issues that have come to light recently, we’ve had great conversations with students and administrations at Tech,” she said. 

“We’ve also had conversations with GTPD about how we can unite to best serve students and not put anyone in a situation where they feel that … their race or any other identity factor is dictating how they’re treated.”

Another issue that SGA has addressed over the summer and this semester pertains to Title IX, which dictates sexual harassment and assault legalities and protections for students.

 “We’ve worked with USG by sending a letter with different universities across the state, and we stated our position that we wanted USG to continue to have higher standards of how our schools handle sexual misconduct on campus. We just heard last week that they approved the new policy that incorporates all of our suggestions,” Lonsberry added.

“SGA members have been working nonstop since we all joined our new positions. It has definitely been a crazy summer.”

Similar chaos ensued for candidates during the SGA election last spring when Tech transitioned to online learning. Vivek Garimella, fourth-year ME, ran for president with Divyesh Gutta, third-year BA. Garimella said that both teams were planning an in-person campaign. As Tech decided to continue the academic semester online, “everyone had to scramble a little bit to try and figure out what the next move should be,” he added. 

“COVID-19 changed the landscape of the election,” he stated. Without any effective means to reach the entire student body on short notice, candidates resorted to social media. “This made it easier for certain social media violations to happen,” Garimella said.

“What happened is that a campaign member mistakenly typed a message, and it was interpreted as lying about the other team. I actually learned about the controversy at the same time as everyone else,” Lonsberry explained.

“I don’t necessarily think it was that huge of a deal,” Garimella added. “It was a very close election, and there was the question of whether or not the campaign violations impacted the outcome of the election.” 

Garimella explained that there was a concerningly low voter turnout last year. “In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, there probably isn’t a whole lot of thought being put into SGA.” 

Lonsberry agreed: “Honestly, the campaign was not my top priority for a bit because we all had to take care of ourselves first… Our campaign team had meetings, and we felt insensitive pushing people to vote in an election during this time when there are more important things.” 

“As President, I’ll be the first to admit that … [to students], trying to figure out where they’re living and if they can go home because their parents are immunocompromised … takes precedence over voting in a student government election. And I think that was just something that all the teams tried to balance,” she added. 

Even though last year’s election was disrupted by COVID-19, resulting in fewer votes, Tech’s SGA elections have historically seen a low voter turnout. 

“We’ve all learned that engagement with SGA is minimal,” Garimella said, adding that many voters were more interested in the controversy after last year’s election ended.

“I wake up the morning after the results are announced, and my phone is blowing up with Reddit threads about this. People are texting me asking what I think, or whether I think that the other teams cheated. I don’t think that.” 

“It’s really easy for some of these potential controversies that happened to take center stage and the discussion over this election. It’s fun to talk about dramatic things sometimes,” Garimella added. 

“But I think the real question that needs to be answered is students don’t believe that SGA entirely represents them. That’s something that makes me sad because it’s an organization I spent three years of my time in college too. And I did it with the best intentions, but only recently realized how little we were able to reach to some extent.”

According to Lonsberry, student engagement with SGA has increased in the first few weeks of this semester. “I think that because there’s been so much that students needed to be advocated for, that’s really opened up the door for student government to step in and meet these needs of students,” she said. 

“We have tried to open up as many communication channels as possible and talk with as many students as possible and really, listen before acting.”