FeaturedNewsNews Features

Georgia University Chancellor Won’t Mandate Masks on Campuses

Georgia Board of Regents acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney pledged Thursday to focus on getting students vaccinated but said she will not support vaccine or mask mandates. Credit: Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

At two Atlanta meetings Thursday morning, two groups of education leaders outlined opposing visions for the COVID-19 safety measures students and employees should be subject to at Georgia’s colleges and universities.

Georgia Board of Regents acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney said the focus should be on encouraging, but not requiring, as many students as possible to wear masks and become vaccinated so face-to-face learning can continue at the University System of Georgia’s’s 26 schools.

“Everything we do has an impact on the students,” she said. “They are our number one focus, which makes how we respond to their needs and expectations for this year all the more important. And what about our students? An overwhelming majority of them work hard and make safe choices. As a parent, I understand not every single person will do the right thing. But many of them do because they understand the impact online learning had on their last year and the challenges they face staying on track to attain their degree.”

Echoing the remarks of Gov. Brian Kemp at a recent press conference, MacCartney said the university system will do everything possible to avoid online learning, save requiring masks or vaccines.

“Gov. Kemp said last week at the Capitol he believes mandates cause divisions on campuses. He does not support them,” MacCartney said. “He further stated he believes those who want to wear a mask should wear them to protect themselves and others. He expects the university system to continue to focus on getting everyone that’s eligible vaccinated and to educate and advocate about why it’s so important. We continue to be in alignment with the governor’s expectations and requirements for state agencies through this pandemic.”

MacCartney said the USG is taking COVID-19 seriously and has distributed more than 432,000 masks, 942,000 gloves, over 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and more than 313,000 COVID-19 tests.

“I want to stress that I understand the concerns of some on our campuses and in our communities. We have been in constant, constant communication with presidents as well as the board to share those concerns,” she said.

Georgia College Professors Take a Walk

The debate has been contentious as COVID-19 cases grow at some universities, and several professors have made high-profile exits from their positions over masking in class.

University of Georgia professor Irwin Bernstein abruptly announced his retirement during a lecture on the second day of the semester after a student refused to properly wear her mask.

Georgia College Professor Meredith Styer told Macon station WMAZ she resigned over a similar conflict in one of her classes.

“The USG could implement policies that stop the spread of COVID-19 but they’ve chosen instead to let 18-year-olds with no experience or understanding hold hostage the health of entire communities,” Styer told WMAZ.

Two University of North Georgia professors also tendered their resignations over a lack of mask mandates, and Georgia State University Perimeter College lab coordinator Cody Luedtke was terminated after she said she would not teach in a classroom without mandatory masks.

University of Georgia math professor Joseph Fu is clashing with administrators over his insistence on requiring masks in his classes despite the rules against it and warnings from his bosses.

The regents could vote next month on a code change that could make it easier to fire professors who flout the rules, adding language to the policy on disciplining and removing faculty members specifying that “a faculty member may also be separated from employment prior to the end of the contract term other than for cause as outlined here, pursuant to other policies of the Board of Regents.”

Fu has said he does not plan to comply with the mask rules and does not fear punishment for doing what he believes is right.

Rather than bucking the rules, other professors across the state are hoping to change them, calling for more latitude from the regents as cases mount on some campuses.

At Georgia State University, positive surveillance tests nearly doubled from Aug. 27 to Sept. 3, rising from 32 cases to 63, and another 90 students and four staff members voluntarily reported that they had tested positive.

Georgia Tech also saw a spike early in the month, with 82 cases reported Sept. 2. Positive tests have declined since, but so far this month, 191 people have tested positive there.

Georgia Tech Faculty Debates Campus COVID Safety

The faculty senate at Tech Thursday became the latest to discuss how to force the university system to give them more power over safety measures at their institution.

Faculty at other universities, including the University of North Georgia, the University of West Georgia and the University of Georgia have held similar discussions.

As the regents were wrapping up their meeting Thursday, the Georgia Tech faculty senate gathered virtually and expressed broad support for three motions expanding COVID-19 safety measures on campus. 

The proposals call for granting the institution local control over safety guidelines currently imposed by the University System of Georgia, increased masking and testing requirements, more freedom for professors to move their courses online and a vaccination requirement for residential students with religious and medical exemptions.

An informal poll showed strong faculty approval for all three, but the senate took no official action. A vote could happen ahead of the next formal meeting, scheduled for Oct. 19, and the documents could be amended and reworded before the official vote.

Some professors said they feared COVID-19 spreading in large classes or subject lessons in which students and professors work long hours in close quarters.

“Classrooms are very crowded, especially for engineering,” said Pinar Keskinocak, chair and professor at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech. “There are many large classes, everybody’s sitting shoulder to shoulder. And there’s a general sense that faculty and even many of the students actually are not necessarily feeling safe when they’re in the classroom.”

Though the faculty senators mostly said large majorities of their constituents supported stronger safety measures, it was not unanimous. Some took issue with the wording of some of the motions, others said they could not stomach a vaccine mandate.

Sarah Preston, a research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, said the people she talked to were divided on the vaccine issue.

“Some people have voiced their opinion that they will leave Georgia Tech if a faculty vaccine mandate is put into place because they feel like that is an overreach to require, effectively, a medical procedure to continue employment,” Preston said. “Other people feel vaccines need to be mandated, as other people have voiced on the call. ‘I’ve got young kids at home, I might be at risk, I’m not comfortable with delta circulating and the continued risk of COVID.’ There are people very strongly on either side.”

As currently written, the vaccine measure would only apply to residential students and not faculty.

Associate professor of law and ethics at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business Karie Davis-Nozemack said a vaccine mandate will likely be the most contentious portion of the senate’s recommendations, but she urged her colleagues to continue pushing.

“That one, I think, has the most divisive opinions on campus, that’s harder to get our arms around, which may mean that we need to do more work on it,” she said. “But to be perfectly frank, that’s in the control of the governor’s office right now. So because it’s covered by gubernatorial executive order, we’re least likely maybe to see movement on that, as opposed to some of the other policy changes from USG, which is why it’s separated out, but I think we need to keep talking about it, and we need to find every possible way to have our voices heard.”

The conflict could escalate this week as the American Association of University Professors are planning five days of protests at 19 Georgia public college campuses across the state.

This article originally appeared in the Georgia Recorder.