Return to the Classroom at UGA? Sure—but Only if It’s Safe

“WHEREAS, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia is focused on supporting its institutions continuing to return to safe in-person instruction; and

WHEREAS, the Board is focused on the continued success of Georgia students.

BE IT RESOLVED, that the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia believes in-person instruction maximizes the well-being and mental health of each student; and

IT IS RESOLVED, that each campus is to maximize safe in-person instruction; ensure hybrid instruction includes a vast majority of in-person interactive instruction where appropriate and safe; promote transparency in the modality of instruction prior to registration; and collect data on the effectiveness of student engagement and face to face interaction with their instructors.”

— USG Board of Regents, Oct. 13, 2020

My colleagues and I at UGA and around the USG have been working overtime to offer effective instruction to our students this semester. If we could be assured of reasonable measures to ensure the health of our campus communities—students, staff and faculty alike—we would welcome the more manageable work schedules we are accustomed to. It can require twice the work of an ordinary class to satisfy both the students who are connecting remotely as well as the few who choose to come to the classroom.   

We understand very well the importance of face to face communication. So we received the BOR’s resolution of Oct. 13 with a sense of bitter irony. Neither they nor the administrators at our individual campuses have ever even tried to conduct a proper dialogue about how to manage life with COVID-19 with campus and community stakeholders. They set the tone in late June when they failed to mandate masks on campus, even after the overwhelming majority of universities around the nation and the region had already taken this simple yet crucial step. They only relented after a massive and frantic effort produced multiple petitions, including one signed by over 12,000 campus and community members and another by almost the entire faculty of Georgia Tech, and amplified by an incredulous national press.

The resolution repeats the word “safe” three times. However, the board has never defined a practical standard for what this word might mean, refusing to issue any guidelines whatsoever for what levels of contagion on campus might trigger a retreat from face to face activities. 

The board and its underlings at USG institutions around the state emphasize how many people are urging them to relax safety concerns, but fail to acknowledge the many others— students, parents, community members—with opposite views. Not once has the BOR acknowledged the 267 letters from USG parents and residents of campus towns, delivered during their meeting on Sept. 15, pleading with them to take steps to protect the health of our campuses and our communities.

The board fails to recognize that issues beyond the mode of instruction might be affecting students’ “well-being and mental health.” Many students are at least as concerned by risks to their own physical health, as well as the risks that they might carry to their families. Yet a UGA student questionnaire, sent out on the heels of the board’s resolution, neglected even to mention the virus.

Indeed, by “promot[ing] transparency in the modality of instruction prior to registration,” the BOR is signaling the priority of a steadfast and unwavering path through the semester. Campus stakeholders, however, care less about stability and perseverance, and more about awareness, safety, and above all flexibility in the face of the rapidly changing conditions that the virus is almost sure to present.

What is driving BOR’s single-minded focus? The answer is an open secret: the financial bottom line. To take one example, campus communities have not forgotten the revelation of the financial arrangement between USG and the dormitory management corporation Corvias, which demanded in late May that USG prioritize their commitment to them above the safety of students. USG’s denial on Aug. 8 was entirely beside the point: In view of their financially compromised position, we have no confidence that the USG will choose to react appropriately to changing public health conditions.

Having learned from experience, campuses around the USG are ghost towns, as students, staff, and faculty do what we must to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities from infection. Many students have opted to leave campus altogether, which may well explain the (thankfully) low rates of infection we saw in September. 

But the virus is on the move again. We don’t know what conditions we will face next semester, next month or even next week. We would all love to return to the classroom—but not without a reasonable assurance that our bosses have our back.