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Faculty Pressure Administrators for Stronger COVID Policies

Credit: Sarah Ann White

COVID-19 cases at the University of Georgia doubled again last week, from 231 to 457, as pressure ramps up from faculty to implement mask and vaccine mandates.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases throughout Clarke County dipped slightly from 101 a week ago to 86 as of Sept. 7, but that could be because few people got tested over the four-day weekend. Hospitals remained full, with 91% of inpatient beds occupied. Of those patients, 294, or 45%, had COVID-19.

If and when that number breaks the record of 319 set last January, UGA mathematics professor Joe Fu said he plans to move his classes online in defiance of University System of Georgia rules. Fu, who has been a vocal critic of the administration throughout the pandemic, made the pronouncement at an August faculty senate meeting, and it caught Franklin College Dean Alan Dorsey’s attention. Dorsey wrote to Fu to tell him that requiring his students to wear masks and switching his in-person classes to online “violate USG rules and constitute grounds for disciplinary action.”

Fu responded that he is prepared to “step away” after 36 years if need be, but that due to the public health emergency facing Athens, he is obligated to act and hopes that others follow suit. “Just as I ultimately decide how to run my classes, so do you all [administrators] actually control your own responses to the directives of the BOR,” he 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.”

At the aforementioned faculty senate meeting, faculty debated a resolution urging UGA and USG to mandate COVID-19 vaccines and masks indoors but ultimately decided to rewrite it to make it stronger, said Faculty Senate President Cindy Hahamovitch, a history professor. The resolution read:

“Resolved, the faculty of Franklin College strongly condemn the University System of Georgia’s decision not to mandate masks in public buildings on USG campuses and to ban faculty from requiring masks in their classroom and labs. These policies run counter to CDC guidance and are needlessly putting staff, students, faculty members, their family members, and community members at risk, as well as overburdening our already overburdened hospitals. Further, we urge USG to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, as USG policies allow. Finally, we express our support for faculty members and graduate students who refuse to teach in person unless all students in the classroom are wearing masks.”

In addition, public college and university professors around the state are planning protests next week to demand mask mandates on campuses. Protests at UGA, organized by psychology professor Janet Frick, will be held at the Tate Student Center at 10 a.m. Sept. 13 and 11 a.m. Sept. 14.

USG institutions had 4,400 cases of COVID-19 in August alone, compared to 8,000 for the entire spring semester, according to Matthew Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor and president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“Delta is burning through college campuses,” Boedy said.

Younger people are driving this current wave of the Delta variant, including not only college students but children as well. Cases among children ages 11-17 have quadrupled in the past few weeks, and more than half of new cases can be traced back to K-12 schools, Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said last week.

“What’s happening is children are getting infected and are transmitting it, and it’s being transmitted to other family members,” Toomey said.

Clarke County high schools are on “pause” this week in an effort to break the cycle of rising cases. Superintendent Xernona Thomas said she took the opportunity of a four-day weekend to get 10 days off while only missing four days of in-person instruction.

“We don’t want to have to close,” Thomas said. “We really don’t want to have to close.”

The ultimate answer is getting more people vaccinated, and UGA and Athens-Clarke County are upping their incentives. ACC now offers $100 gift cards for people to get the shot at the Clarke County Health Department or Northeast Health District-sponsored community events. UGA students, faculty and staff who’ve been vaccinated can enter to win one of 100 $1,000 prizes.