On an early Saturday morning in 1976, the Teton Dam unexpectedly broke. The massive wall of water swept through several communities downstream and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.
Even though all seemed lost, the townspeople rallied together with volunteers who came in by bus to help with disaster relief. BYU–Idaho, then Ricks College, became headquarters for disaster relief. Displaced residents and flood victims were housed in the dorms, and the Manwaring Center served hundreds of thousands of meals. And just three months later, the college opened again for classes.
Today, BYU–Idaho students and Rexburg Idaho residents are facing another natural disaster in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the fall semester’s first devotional, held on Sept. 15, BYU–Idaho President Henry J. Eyring outlined what measures are being taken to keep students safe from the novel coronavirus and what students will be expected to do in order to help keep the campus safe and open.
The BYU–Idaho campus in Rexburg, Idaho, closed during the last month of winter semester due to state guidelines in response to COVID-19. “Fortunately, our talented and gifted faculty members, as well as thousands of other capable and consecrated university employees hardly missed a beat,” President Eyring said.
Thanks to the vision and foresight of three past BYU–Idaho presidents — Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Kim B. Clark, General Authority Seventy, and BYU–Pathway Worldwide President Clark Gilbert — “the university moved to year-round instruction and developed high-quality online courses.”
BYU–Idaho now offers about 350 fully online courses as well as a variety of hybrid and face-to-face classes held on campus.
The school’s leadership is working with representatives from the State of Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare and Eastern Idaho Public Health. BYU–Idaho follows their guidelines, and these departments are interested in the university’s experiences with COVID-19 management.
“We trust and follow the guidance of these well-trained and wise state employees, and they show gratifying trust in us,” President Eyring said. “These representatives of the state are firm but reasonable in their standards.”
Thanks to the expert and open minded government officials, President Eyring has “developed new appreciation for the 12th Article of Faith which states, ‘We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.’”
COVID-19 can be avoided by simple means: wearing face coverings, physical distancing and regular hand washing. The BYU–Idaho campus has adopted several measures that incorporate these medical and government recommendations, including mandated protective face coverings indoors, hallway directional signs and disinfecting treatments of hallways and classrooms.
“For our collective safety, there can be no exceptions.”
When out in public, humans have a strong social instinct to be friendly and supportive. It can be difficult to keep one’s face covering on or placed properly when others don’t. But in these situations, “we need to be leaders, even at the risk of seeming insensitive or offensive.”
Additionally, it is important for anyone experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 — such as persistent coughing, shortness of breath and fever — to contact the Student Health Center immediately. Any delay puts others at risk.
Out of a fear of a potential quarantine, students might be tempted to dismiss a recommendation to turn themselves in to public health officials. “To make those consequences less burdensome, the university will immediately respond with help for quarantined students through the Student Well Being office, including assistance for roommates who may not be positive for COVID-19,” President Eyring said.
This assistance includes in-room meals, access to video of classroom discussions, remote counseling with professors and access to tutoring.
“No wounded academic warrior will be left on a pandemic battlefield.”
Everyone at BYU–Idaho has a “duty to battle the virus,” President Eyring continued. One of the tools in this conflict will be to stay updated on the Idaho Division of Public Health grading system to which the university is subject. The health scorecard can be found on Eastern Idaho Public Health’s website.
“We’re not just fans of what happens at BYU–Idaho — we are the players. And our coaches include wise faculty members, administrators and even prophets,” President Eyring said. “We can influence the outcome of this important game, which has high stakes for us all.”
The fall semester is the beginning of a spiritual trek of sorts for everyone in the BYU–Idaho community. “The way will be hard, and we will face challenges, setbacks and disappointments,” President Eyring said.
In addition to the virus, isolation is also an enemy to be contended with.
President Eyring encouraged students in Rexburg to go onto campus a few times a week and make eye contact with others, say hello or have conversations with others. “You have the power to not only make someone’s day, but to touch their soul,” he said. “In fact, reaching out in this and similar ways … will be a blessing both to others and to you.”
Before closing, President Eyring touched on one of the most laudable features of society today: honoring and protecting the elderly.
Among the earliest fatalities to COVID-19 in Utah were two of President Eyring’s friends: Robert Rose, his father’s Bountiful, Utah, neighbor of 43 years, and Robert H. Garff, an auto executive and politician, and former president of the Bountiful Utah Temple.
“I keenly feel the loss of these wise friends,” President Eyring said. “They were not only great contributors to the Church and the world at large, but also invaluable examples to me.”
Caring for the elderly can come at a cost, but “it is a well-justified investment in maintaining our humanity and spiritual sensitivity,” he said. “In addition to making us kinder, it allows us to learn from the wisest amongst all, and it is what each of us will hope for as our lives come to their close.”
In her devotional address, Sister Kelly C. Eyring, President Eyring’s wife, also touched on the importance of staying connected with other students.
In the first spring devotional of 2017 when President and Sister Eyring spoke, he encouraged students to smile at each other and say hello. “I remember being on campus after that first devotional, and almost everyone greeted each other,” Sister Eyring said. “It created a special campus culture that I hope we can preserve.”
However, with required face coverings and face shields, it will be easy to avoid saying hello this fall semester. “Yet now, more than ever, we need to acknowledge one another,” Sister Eyring said.
She proposed that students greet each other with the American Sign Language sign for “hello,” which resembles a salute, “to signal that we acknowledge and value each other. It will bless those around us and I promise it will make us happy too.”
Returning to the BYU–Idaho campus will require obedience and sacrifice from students, staff and faculty alike, in order for everyone to stay safe and keep the campus operating. But these unusual and challenging circumstances will bring out everyone’s creativity and flexibility.
As her daughter-in-law put it, “Blessed are the flexible, for they are never bent out of shape.”
Just like it took Nephi a few different attempts to get the brass plates from Laban in the Book of Mormon, “We will get to study and learn in different ways this semester,” Sister Eyring said. Like Nephi, “you and I will need heaven’s help to navigate this challenging time.”
Watch the full devotional at byui.edu/devotionals.