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UGA Professor Resigns Mid-Class After Mask Dispute With Student

Irwin Bernstein at UGA's Costa Rica program. Credit: UGA

An 88-year-old University of Georgia professor walked out of class on Tuesday when a student refused to wear her mask properly.

Irwin Bernstein, who had come out of retirement to begin teaching again, informed students that he could die from COVID-19 due to his age and underlying medical conditions, according to The Red & Black, which broke the story. Everyone who was there the first day complied, but on the second day of class, a student arrived maskless. After being asked to get one, she did, but then the student would not pull it up over her nose.

“At that point I said that whereas I had risked my life to defend my country while in the Air Force, I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student during this Pandemic,” Bernstein said in an email to The Red & Black. “I then resigned my retiree-rehire position.”

The student newspaper quoted another student in the class, Hannah Huff, as saying that she and her classmates were shocked and angry at the unnamed mask-averse student because many of them are seniors who needed the class to graduate. The offending student responded to the effect that Bernstein’s resignation was “a blessing in disguise.”

Bernstein retired in 2011 but still taught part-time and was scheduled to teach two classes this semester.

Gov. Brian Kemp’s orders prohibit state agencies from requiring masks, and University System of Georgia policy prohibits professors from requiring students to wear them, although UGA “strongly encourages” wearing a mask indoors.

“I am sorry that the pandemic has caused so much dissension. I personally do not agree that stimulating the economy is more important than people’s lives and am disappointed that some people feel that it is,” Bernstein said, according to The Red & Black.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to spike in Athens, with 166 confirmed cases reported Friday. Almost 250 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Athens region, making up 42% of all hospital patients, and all but two intensive care unit beds are occupied.

The Athens Area Chamber of Commerce recently launched a campaign to convince residents to get vaccinated to avoid further economic harm to local businesses.