For The Record

Georgia college professors warn of COVID danger as state pushes mask-less fall

By: - September 1, 2021 7:46 pm

Protesters at Georgia State University demand a stricter mask policy to stop COVID-19 spread on campus. Amanda Andrews/GPB News

Georgia Tech’s current COVID-19 prevention measures are not sufficient to prevent widespread transmission of the virus, a biology professor wrote this week in a letter to Provost Steve McLaughlin.

“I will not be surprised if we have 5,000 cases in the next month, half undetected and most asymptomatic or very mild, and more than half in vaccinated individuals,” wrote Greg Gibson, chair of the college’s School of Biological Sciences.

“Transmission will be in shared rooms on and off campus, at parties and other campus events, more so than classrooms. For the near future, online teaching is about protecting faculty, it is the reasonable thing to do. From the beginning I have hoped that our program would keep classrooms open, and indeed taught in person all spring and half of last fall, but for the next month I am more fearful than at any time in the past 18 months.”

The school’s surveillance program indicates a positivity level about 1%, but the actual infection rate is likely much higher due to under-testing, Gibson said.

Gibson recommended declaring all classes hybrid or online at the discretion of professors until positivity level falls below 1% and mask wearing becomes the norm. Another 13 Georgia Tech deans and high-ranking professors signed on to Gibson’s recommendations in another letter sent Monday.

Current University System of Georgia policy states that professors can strongly encourage but not require masks and changes from online to in-person classes must be approved by a provost.

“Do we really want to wait until that one faculty member dies?” Gibson wrote. “I appreciate that you are in a difficult if not impossible position, as (the University System of Georgia) has decided that the semester will proceed with mandated in-person teaching but no mandates on masks or vaccines. We will do what we can to maximize both, but in my opinion, it is morally irresponsible to ask professors to enter a classroom at this time.”

The Georgia Board of Regents pledged to push toward normalcy this fall after two semesters upended by the pandemic. But while COVID-19 cases fell to the low triple digits in June and July, they have been steadily increasing ever since, with an average of more than 6,800 cases per day in the last week of August.

Experts including Georgia Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey say the spike is largely traceable to K-12 schools, where many students are not old enough to be vaccinated or understand the importance of COVID-19 mitigation.

But as welcome-back parties, Greek life, football season and other college rituals get underway, some professors are increasingly questioning policies that let students rather than faculty dictate classroom protocols.

At least one professor, lab coordinator Cody Luedtke from Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, has been let go for refusing to teach in a classroom without mandatory masks. Others have resigned, including one University of Georgia professor who walked out of a classroom full of students on the second day of the semester after a student refused to properly wear a mask, according to the student paper, the Red & Black.

Another UGA instructor, math professor Joseph Fu, said he is facing potential disciplinary action for instituting a mask requirement in his classroom.

“I appreciate your concern for the health and safety of your students and our campus community,” wrote UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Dean Alan Dorsey in a letter to Fu. “I understand that you have strong and sincere views on these issues, and you are free to express your opinions through personal and professional channels, but as a faculty member of the University of Georgia, you are obligated to follow University System of Georgia rules and policies.”

Fu told Dorsey he does not intend to comply, saying that he hopes to encourage colleagues to institute similar policies, protect campus workers and send a message to campus leadership.

“Just as I ultimately decide how to run my classes, so do you all actually control your own responses to the directives of the BOR,” Fu wrote. “It is well past time to defy them, and to put the needs of the many thousands of people who depend on you ahead of your own careers.”

Other students and college employees have held scattered protests on campuses and in front of the Board of Regents offices in Atlanta.

Faculty at Georgia State University held a demonstration in Atlanta Monday, and professors and students at Columbus State University say they are planning a protest on Friday.

“The failure and unwillingness to enact basic, common-sense COVID-19 safety protocols on campus and in classrooms endangers the health and well-being of all CSU students, faculty, and staff,” said Brian Schwartz, president of the Columbus State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which is leading the demonstration.

“Teachers who have been exposed to COVID-19 are being forced to either teach in person in the classroom or to stream their lectures from home into a classroom,” he added. “Students are required to attend and watch, though [they] can’t even ask the teacher a question, because our classroom technology won‘t allow for the kind of interaction that online teaching does.”

But while Gov. Brian Kemp has so far signaled he is open to letting public schools determine their own mask policies, he told reporters Monday he is not interested in changing the current policy for institutes of higher education.

“I think the university system needs to continue to focus on getting everybody that’s eligible vaccinated. I think they’ve done that with their employees. I think we need to continue doing that with the students, and I’m going to continue to support them to do that. I personally believe that mandates like that are only going to cause division on campus. If people want to wear a mask, wear the mask. I’m good with that. If you feel comfortable doing that, if you want to try to protect yourself, protect others from you, I have no issues with that. But I also know that there’s a lot of people that have been vaccinated that don’t want to wear masks anymore.”

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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.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. 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. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.