Responding to an urgent request from the faculty senates of the Franklin College and the College of Education and appeals from the United Campus Workers of Georgia, on Aug. 4 the senior administration of UGA held an online “campus conversation” on their plan to reopen campus next week in the face of the cascading COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia.
To their credit, they took some tough questions, in the apparent belief that a show of optimism would inspire confidence. However, they either evaded these questions (as in items 3 and 4, on testing) or gave answers that are categorically unacceptable (as in item 17 on closing guidelines).
In addition to these concerns, President Jere Morehead and the senior administration failed to discuss the risks that UGA’s opening poses to the Athens community, especially the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the poor and on communities of color. Especially dismaying was their failure to acknowledge the death of Ana Cabrera Lopez, a 32-year-old housing worker at UGA, from COVID-19. This grievous omission raises the question of whether earlier COVID-19 deaths in the UGA community may have occurred without acknowledgment. Morehead expressed a desire to improve UGA’s commitment to racial justice in a June 1 email to the UGA community. The failure to consider how UGA’s plan to reopen in the fall will impact low-wage workers and workers of color, as well as the larger Athens community, belies Morehead’s expressed commitment to racial justice.
The webinar revealed a web of gaps in the plan. We break it down thematically below.
Faculty and Staff Want Campus Open—and Safe
One question from the webinar suggested that faculty are insisting on a campus shutdown (see item 27) that would jeopardize the jobs of staff. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the summer, faculty—along with staff, graduate students, undergraduate students and UGA parents—have signed open letters to UGA and the University System of Georgia (USG), submitted urgent requests, passed resolutions, and signed and delivered petitions pleading with UGA and USG to take public health and safety seriously in order to avoid a campus shut down and ensure the continuity of instruction in the fall and beyond. Moreover, these statements have expressed strong support for hazard pay for essential workers, paid sick leave and job protection during the pandemic.
A chaotic shutdown—or worse, a failure to shut down in the face of an exploding hotspot—will damage the credibility of UGA’s leadership at a time when it is most needed. As the institution struggles to recover, the long-term prospects of employment for all UGA employees will be devastated.
Campus Reopening Is a Black Lives Issue
It is well known that people of color, especially the poor, are at greater risk of adverse outcomes from COVID-19 infection. As they and their elders succumb to the disease, the formative experiences of children will be indelibly marked, setting back UGA’s tenuous and historically fraught relations with local communities of color for generations.
Community awareness of cases and locations must be a bedrock principle. Demographic data must be shared: We will not be party to the devastation of local black communities. UGA administrators claim to be standing up for racial equity by renaming buildings, yet they refuse to act to protect the lives and health of the actual black communities on whose labor the university has relied for centuries.
We Need Clear Guidelines on When to Shut Down
In item 17, Morehead states in the clearest possible terms that the UGA administration cannot issue any guiding principles of any kind for what might trigger further restrictions, including a shutdown, on campus life. Instead, he claimed, this is the exclusive purview of the USG.
For years, we have been told that the university must run like a business. A fundamental principle of modern business is the use of metrics in guiding decisions. UGA is strong in health sciences, pharmaceutical sciences and biology, yet the administration has offered no quantifiable guidelines backed by science for the point at which this critically important decision might be taken. The only metric they have shown us so far is the $6 million they have spent, to doubtful effect. Vulnerable faculty, staff and students must know that they are working in an environment where the administration has specific plans, clearly described, to react to changing conditions.
The Athens community will be reluctant to abandon itself to the protection of the USG. We have witnessed the values of the USG at close hand in recent days, as the community struggled desperately in June and July to get it to issue a campus mask mandate, all while virtually every other university throughout the region and the nation had already done so. Likewise, we have little reason to trust that guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) will be free of political influence, after the director stood next to Gov. Brian Kemp and kept a straight face on April Fool’s Day as he announced that he had only just learned about asymptomatic transmission. This had been common knowledge for weeks.
We Need Transparency on Contact Tracing
Contact tracing is a crucial component of the UGA reopening plan. It appears on no fewer than 26 different pages of UGA’s 224 page, Plans for a Phased Return to Full Operations.
During the webinar, Executive Director of the UGA Health Center Garth Russo stated, “And as we all know, contact tracing is something that we’ve partnered with the DPH to do.” (See item 6.)
But we don’t know that. What we do know is that UGA administrators have repeated ad nauseam that “contact tracing is the responsibility of DPH.” In other words, this critical component of the plan is a black box. Meanwhile, the DPH has struggled with the recent surge in cases, interviewing a mere 37% of those who tested positive between June 23–July 8.
The UGA community has seen no direct evidence of the “close relationship” with DPH. A public acknowledgement from DPH officials of this relationship, including a discussion of their plans to do contact tracing in Athens as 40,000 students return, is needed. Its persistent failure to appear suggests that things may not be as claimed.
Workers and the Community Must Be Informed
That we still do not know the source of the infection that took the life of Ana Cabrera Lopez raises a necessary question: Will facilities workers be promptly informed of confirmed cases among their coworkers, or in campus locations they visit? When exposed, will UGA follow CDC guidelines for quarantine? And what about students? Russo gave a clear answer (see item 6): UGA will assume that distancing practices have been respected at all times in residence halls, common areas, work spaces and classrooms, and therefore will not inform students, staff and faculty of the infected individuals they have encountered.
The inexplicable delay in acknowledging the tragic loss of Cabrera indicates, too, that the community has not been and will not be informed of the state of the pandemic on campus. UGA has demonstrated no commitment to openness beyond posting the cumulative number of infections on the Health Center website. In order to provide for its own safety, the community deserves prompt, accurate and appropriately detailed information about demographic characteristics, job categories and locations on campus of infected individuals.
Perhaps the administration believes that their miserly approach to information will permit them to control the mood on campus. On the contrary, in the absence of reliable and suitably detailed information, the community will adopt the only rational strategy possible: to proactively share information among ourselves. This will increase, not decrease, the likelihood of dangerous or disruptive rumors.
What Is the Scientific Rationale Behind Testing Plan?
In items 3 and 4, Provost S. Jack Hu described the UGA “surveillance testing” plan for (up to) 300 volunteers a day. This term appears to suggest that this pitifully small number, clearly inadequate as a means to remove the infected from the population at large, might nevertheless be adequate to gain a statistical view of spread. In fact, “surveillance testing” has a technical meaning, but it is not merely “testing of individuals without symptoms,” as suggested in the Archnews email of Aug. 7, 1:53 pm.
As of this writing on Aug. 10, the CDC website says: “An example of surveillance testing is a testing plan developed by a State Public Health Department to randomly select and sample 1% of all individuals in a city on a rolling basis to determine local infection rates and trends.”
UGA’s proposed system, based on volunteers, fails to measure up. If the DPH was involved in formulating the plan, it would have been appropriate for their representatives to tell us many weeks ago.
The intention seems to be to give a performance of testing, in order to bolster confidence. Without reporting of results to the community, nor any suggestion about how UGA and USG will analyze and respond to the data, what good is this testing program? It could well backfire, as false confidence in testing encourages people to relax other safety measures.
On Aug. 4, scientists at Georgia Tech posted an informative video entitled Science and Projections for Our Return to Campus, in which they describe their plan to administer as many as 2,000 tests a day. While far from perfect—for example, the unaddressed challenge of contact tracing is only briefly mentioned—the scientists at least offered a clear and detailed scientific rationale for why their testing plan might have a chance to succeed. This provides a solid starting point for a discussion of their plan’s validity, in marked contrast to UGA’s publicity.
Students Must Have Safe Housing to Quarantine
The plans for treatment of infected students, addressed by Vice President for Student Affairs Victor Wilson in item 12, fall far short of the minimum required. The upshot is that UGA has no plan to quarantine infected students beyond the repeated assurance that “we will work with them” to find a solution. This might mean anything or nothing.
Beyond that, Wilson stated that, “What we want students to do, and all students, is once they receive a positive test, obviously is to leave campus as soon as possible.” In other words, the plan is for infected students to carry disease to their families and home communities. The student community is well aware of this looming calamity.
We have seen that UGA has no plan to comprehend the spread of COVID-19 through campus, and no plan to shut campus down in case of wide contagion. Under current guidelines, it is likely that asymptomatic cases will multiply. If UGA succeeds in remaining open until Thanksgiving, as planned, this will mean that an infected community will disperse throughout Georgia and beyond for the holiday.
This scenario is eerily reminiscent of a horrific episode from the early days of the global pandemic. As information was suppressed by Chinese authorities in the metropolis of Wuhan, hundreds or thousands of carriers left the city for their hometowns for the Chinese New Year celebration. This development was a major source of spreading of the coronavirus throughout China.
We do not believe that UGA administrators wish to reproduce this scenario in our state. However, outside observers may be hard pressed to see this from UGA’s reopening plan.
Employees Must Have a Seat at the Table
Real leadership– the kind that would inspire trust at the present dire moment– requires care for and collaboration with workers at all levels. Instead, University Council meetings for March and April were canceled “due to a lack of agenda items”. Since then, an anxious UGA community has waited for UGA to roll out the promised plan. Only within the past few weeks have details—or their absence—become clear. In item 28 of the webinar, Morehead congratulated his own team on their financial preparations for a worst-case scenario like we are now experiencing. It would be reassuring to display the same worst-case thinking in our present predicament.
Remarkably, Morehead went to great lengths to stake out a clear and unambiguous institutional position founded on endless deference to the USG and the Board of Regents (BOR). Meanwhile, the BOR is almost completely inaccessible—members do not even list an email address on its website, only a web form for responses limited to 1,500 characters. So the insulation of USG decision makers from actual campus stakeholders—whether students, staff, faculty or the Athens community—is nearly complete.
UGA and USG continue to tout their “close relationship” with DPH, but rarely if ever have they told us anything specific that DPH has done. Nor has any representative of DPH made any public statement of any kind affirming this relationship in concrete terms. Instead, we hear again and again that “contact tracing is the responsibility of DPH.” At this point, it is hard to resist the thought that this is intended to position USG for a blame-slinging match if the likely disaster occurs.
As tempting as it may be, now is not the time for blame, but for action. The plan that has emerged from this period of confusion is inadequate. It would be truly negligent to plow ahead out of some misguided sense of institutional loyalty. Instead, this is a moment to take a breath and reassess, openly and honestly. This is the only course of action that will serve the institution in the long run, as well as the thousands of employees who depend on it for their livelihood.
The nature of the pandemic crisis dictates that opening can only be accomplished with a granular understanding of conditions on the ground, an understanding only available to workers themselves. Instead, arrangements on the ground are only now being implemented at the last minute, in an atmosphere of confusion. It is safe to say that almost everyone who works at UGA is aware of glaring faults in preparation: inadequate plexiglass barriers; unanswered questions about the safety of HVAC systems; shortages of cleaning supplies that can only be paid for from departmental funds after classes begin; the safety of the sanitizing wipes that have been placed throughout campus; and who knows what else. A pandemic is not the setting to be creating and learning a new system on the fly.
We invite Morehead or, if it is more appropriate, USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley to rebut this response. We will gladly send a representative to discuss this matter in detail, in public, with a moderator acceptable to both sides, anytime and anywhere.
Joe Fu is a member of the United Campus Workers of Georgia and a mathematics professor at UGA.
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.