Georgia college students, faculty want more COVID-19 safety on campus

By: - August 5, 2020 7:37 am

Not many students roamed the Georgia Tech campus near its student housing Tuesday as classes aren’t set to resume until Aug. 17. A coalition of graduate students at Georgia Tech and other state universities are pressing the state Board of Regents to give them input into COVID-19 safety procedures. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Nearly 1,000 graduate students and supporters from across the state are calling for changes to the University System of Georgia’s reopening plans.

With many Georgia college students set to return to campuses this month for in-person instruction, the students’ open letter represents the latest tension between the university system, which is urging face-to-face classes, and some students, faculty and staff, who are calling for tighter precautions. And graduate students who teach play a hybrid role.

“They want to sell a ‘face-to-face’ product to the undergraduate students because they are unwilling to compromise the revenue stream provided by their tuition, housing, and dining fees,” said Georgia Tech physics graduate student Brett Tregoning. “Therefore, the No. 1 priority seems to be to get them on campus, get them enrolled into as many courses as possible, then deal with the consequences afterward.”

The graduate students represent seven of the 26 University System of Georgia institutions, including Georgia State University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. They want the right to opt out of in-person instruction and deadline extensions and additional funding for research that has been interrupted by the pandemic.

Graduate students wear many hats on university campuses, said Savannah Downing, a University of Georgia PhD candidate and one of the authors of the letter. In addition to fulfilling their own academic requirements, graduate students must oversee research projects and are often responsible for teaching undergraduate classes.

Despite the heavy workload, graduate students do not feel represented in reopening plans, which often leave them uncertain about what will happen when classes resume.

“it’s just so hard to understand what this is going to look like,” Downing said. “I’m not sure that there is any way that we can really have informed consent as to what we’re getting into.”

Questions about how to resume classes on Georgia campuses are due to get a resolution soon. The University of Georgia is set to resume classes Aug. 20. Other universities, including Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern University are scheduled to reopen for classes Aug. 17. Georgia State classes are set to restart Aug. 24.

Many school reopening plans specify rules for either students or faculty, and which category graduate students who teach fall into can be unclear and inconsistent, said Jessica McQuain, a masters candidate at Georgia College.

“We were presented with an option to apply for accommodations, and for graduate students, it’s particularly confusing because we have to go for accommodations as a student as an employee,” she said. “A graduate student who teaches in the English department has asthma and applied to teach online and was denied. Whatever review process they had determined her asthma was not severe enough to warrant an online teaching option, so she’ll be teaching two sections of freshman composition, and she’s scared.”

Graduate students also typically receive low pay and poor benefits, McQuain said.

“On our particular campus, graduate students pay out of pocket for their health insurance premiums, so they are workers who do not receive employee-sponsored health insurance, and they are not paid very well, so the financial burden that’s put on graduate students when they’re teaching is really not measuring up to the risk that they’re also being asked to take on,” she said.

The Georgia Board of Regents did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. Last week, the university system announced it will distribute masks, gloves and other safety gear to its institutions ahead of on-campus instruction this month.

Faculty concerns

Faculty members have clear roles unlike the graduate students and they’re also pushing for more safety requirements before students return to campus classrooms.

Representatives from University of Georgia’s largest college, the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences sent a letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley and University of Georgia President Jere Morehead on July 28 demanding more safety measures and worker protections.

The instructors want increased testing capacity, more clarity in guidelines for closing campus, protections for faculty, staff or students who cannot participate because of child care or other domestic responsibilities and more representation from faculty, staff and students in future decision making.

“It is deeply regrettable that the UGA and USG administrations have brought us so close to the opening of the Fall semester without a clear community understanding of the issues above,” the letter says. 

The state’s university system has faced backlash against reopening policies for months, and appears to have responded to public pressure in at least one case. The university reversed course on face masks last month, requiring masks on campuses after a campaign from students and faculty members, including one letter signed by over 800 Georgia Tech faculty members. That included biologists Greg Gibson and Joshua Weitz, who gave an online talk Tuesday about the return to campus.

The Delta Tau Delta house on the Georgia Tech campus promotes its fall 2020 rush about two weeks before classes are scheduled to start. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

Weitz recommended providing testing for people arriving on campus with extensive follow-up testing, making online classes the default with occasional face-to-face lessons as conditions allow, aiming for 100% mask compliance in buildings and devising plans to protect essential workers who may be at special risk.

Students will also need to play a role by avoiding large gatherings. On Tuesday, fraternity houses on Tech’s campus promoted fall semester rush activities.

“These efforts won’t be enough on their own,” he said. “We need collective efforts to make sure that these high-risk gatherings don’t take place, and that really is something that I think needs to be emphasized from students to students, not just a top-down approach.”

Smaller schools

Those are smart guidelines, but not all schools have the resources to pull them off, said Dr. Isaac Chun-Hai Fung, associate professor of epidemiology at the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

“I think the university has done its best, but the resources that Georgia Southern has are not like UGA, Georgia Tech, Georgia State or Augusta, the four flagship universities, where they have in-house capacity to test individuals beyond those who seek health care because they’re sick,” he said. 

Some instruction will have to be done in-person, Fung said, but he does not feel the state university system has provided clarity about when online teaching is appropriate and at what point universities should switch to digital learning alone.

“There are classes that are very difficult to be conducted online, such as certain laboratory sessions,” he said. “There are individuals, international students who for their visas, the federal government has certain requirements for face-to-face interactions, so I understand why there will be classes and sessions that are face-to-face. We need support for teaching, both online and on campus, and we need support for testing and for isolation.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.