Two Future Histories of the Coronavirus Pandemic at UGA

Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Run-Up to the Beginning of the Semester

After pivoting abruptly to online instruction in spring 2020, UGA and the University System of Georgia regrouped for the fall. USG committed heavily to reopening, setting an ominous tone and rattling nerves in Athens by refusing to require masks on campus. Only after a relentless pressure campaign by campus stakeholders, aided by incredulous coverage from the national press, did USG eventually reverse course in July.

Meanwhile, the upper UGA administration convened an array of working groups, dominated by administrators and chaired professors, to formulate a plan. Excluded entirely were the workers who had real knowledge of conditions on the ground and who faced the most dire consequences of failure. Countless proposals that might have protected staff, produced by the ingenuity and commitment that ordinary people under duress have displayed throughout human history, never saw the light of day.

As the semester approached, the inadequacy of this top-down approach became more and more apparent. The most glaring omission was the failure of the plan to account for the explosion of COVID-19: Between the time the report was released in May and the early weeks of August, community spread in Athens grew by a factor of more than five. The administration’s stubborn refusal to reconsider its course of action thus violated the very CDC metrics its own plan had claimed to embrace. 

Indeed, the only metric that President Jere Morehead chose to highlight in his flailing attempts to justify the plan was the expenditure of $6 million, much of it on a branding gimmick: the distribution of UGA-themed masks. Public confidence in the key provision of contact tracing collapsed as the community was subjected to the mantra that “contact tracing is the responsibility of the DPH,” all while never hearing a single word from the Department of Public Health itself. His credibility waning by the week, Provost Jack Hu attempted to sell UGA’s plan for 300 tests of volunteers per day as “surveillance testing,” a statistical concept. But voluntary testing produces not a random sample so much as a haphazard one. One method produces statistics, the other—the one we used—chaos.

UGA tried to hide the bad news by restricting the publication of data on the contagion, refusing to break it down by demographics, job category or campus location. This would have provided a profile that the community could have used to protect itself. Even the death of a young employee, Ana Cabrera Lopez, went unacknowledged by the administration until it came to light through other channels. Claiming to be handcuffed by their bosses at USG, the UGA administration even refused to issue any criteria for closing that might guide decision-making under a later moment of pressure. The campus braced for a march into a stochastic furnace.

What Happened Next in Universe A

Faced with crumbling credibility among staff and faculty on the one hand, and the arrival of an army of giddy student super-spreaders on the other, the university pulled back from the brink just days before classes were scheduled to begin. They acknowledged their errors and pledged to speak—and above all to listen—to voices of workers at every level. Speaking with one voice, the elders of the university issued a powerful directive to students: If you have not recently received a negative test result (or even if you have), or when you leave campus (or even before), you should assume you have COVID when you meet with people you haven’t seen in a while (or even those you have).

Students were admitted to face-to-face classes only after receiving a negative test result, and pledged—under penalty of expulsion—to observe strict safety protocols.  Instructors, too, could be terminated for failing to hold themselves to the highest standards of safety. Diverse sectors of the workforce in the same locations met together and forged alliances, and workplace friction decreased as workers acknowledged their common goals. Cafeteria jobs became food delivery jobs so that unmasked students wouldn’t have to cluster in cafeterias; workers were paid state mileage rates for isolating by using their own vehicles for work; and long overdue maintenance on equipment and buildings kept all employees on the payroll. An entire hotel was turned into a quarantine facility. No student was required to submit to in-class teaching. No instructor was required to teach in person. Small classes were spread out into large class rooms; others took place outside in tents or under quickly constructed shelters. 

Of course, UGA and USG took a financial hit. However, Morehead, Hu and the rest of the senior administration assumed the mantle of moral leadership by capping their own salaries at $200,000, convincing administrators and faculty to agree to progressive furlough days. Under the courageous leadership of Chancellor Steve Wrigley, USG plowed much of  its previously announced $226 million FY21 capital fund back into wages. The UGA Athletic Association dug into its deep pockets to support the institution without which it would cease to exist. These measures enabled UGA to retain all of its low-wage employees at full salary. 

Face to face instruction came to an orderly end at Thanksgiving, as originally planned. There had been some scares, but thanks to community confidence in the completeness and accuracy of the information provided by the administration, appropriate quarantine measures were imposed in a timely fashion, and all the outbreaks were controlled.
By the following year, with caution still called for, UGA had expanded its testing capabilities many times over. It adopted a policy whereby students would be tested upon arrival and departure, in staggered groups, with any receiving positive test results placed under quarantine. No student could stay the entire semester, but through the clever management scheme invented by the Mathematics and Computer Science departments, most enjoyed a satisfying experience. This compromise kept the institution alive and healthy through the course of the pandemic.

Gradually, the world recovered. Through its display of nerve and humanity, UGA emerged as one of the leading institutions of higher education in the world.

… and in Universe B

Corseted by a broken institutional culture, UGA and USG stumbled into reopening. The rules they had established furnished a cruel trap for the communities of low-wage workers on which they had relied for two centuries. Inevitably, pockets of contagion formed among students, as UGA and DPH played hot potato with contact tracing. Soon, the virus crossed over from the students to the housekeepers and dining hall workers, most of them people of color. The virus tore mercilessly through these communities, cutting down their elders like a scythe. Maintenance staff, office staff and the faculty were next. UGA, however, controlled the narrative by its selective reporting of data, concealing the skyrocketing infection numbers in vulnerable groups within the larger campus pool. From the outside, it all looked as if levels had remained manageably low. The reality was far different.

How could UGA have gotten it so wrong? Tragically, administrators had relied on the crude metric of maximizing the length of time in face-to-face sessions, in the belief that more students would feel as if they’d gotten their money’s worth. Indeed, some students and their families did feel this way, and campus stayed open almost until the goal of Thanksgiving. By then, however, campus was on the verge of uncontrolled exponential outbreak. USG and UGA administrators brought the semester to an abrupt end, and tens of thousands of students left town in confusion. They arrived home to their extended families in a state of exhilaration: made it!  

They may have gotten their money’s worth, but there was a hidden surcharge, payable in a truly grievous currency, as they delivered SARS-COV-2 to their parents and grandparents. This marked the beginning of one of the darkest periods of Georgia’s recent history: the second wave of the pandemic in our state, which arrived even before the first had subsided.

Mathematics professor Joe Fu and history professor Cindy Hahamovitch are both members of the United Campus Workers of Georgia union.