University of Georgia students and staff gathered with Athens area medical professionals and community members last week in a series of protests with two demands of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents: an immediate mask mandate in all campus facilities, and a COVID-19 vaccination requirement, with weekly testing for those exempted.
Demonstrations began Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. and were held an hour later each day of the week near the Tate Student Center. Organized by the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, protests were held at public universities across the state in solidarity.
Indignant of her workplace’s public health policies, psychology professor Janet Frick served as point person for UGA’s protests in partnership with the United Campus Workers Union.
“This is having such a negative impact on UGA’s reputation, both locally and nationally. It’s an anti-scientific approach, so it’s embarrassing to me as a faculty member. It’s upsetting to me on behalf of students and staff who are immunocompromised,” Frick said. “It would be so easy to have policies in place that make campus safer. But just to throw your hands up in the air and say there’s nothing we can do—there’s always something we can do. We can use our voice to speak out on behalf of policies that we should have.”
The rallies were just approximately 30 minutes long to ensure that classes weren’t disrupted and had about 60–100 attendees per day. Their aim, Frick says, was for each rally to include a speaker of each category: faculty or staff, student, community member and medical expert, which they achieved almost every time.
Notable speakers included Athens-Clarke County mayor Kelly Girtz. “I am calling at the Board of Regents, now is the time to use your positions to keep us safe, to make these great institutions strong and enduring,” Girtz said. “Because all of our children and all of our grandchildren are going to look back on this time and they’re going to ask, ‘Which side were you on? Were you on the side of taking care of one another, or were you on the side of throwing caution to the wind?’”
Athens-Clarke County has a mask mandate, as does Clarke County School District. The USG, along with public Texas universities and the State University System of Florida, are outliers among other prominent public universities in their lack of COVID-19 mandates.
Vaccines are conveniently administered at the UGA Health Center, and those getting vaccinated receive a T-shirt and $20 gift card, as well as a chance to win $1,000 through a raffle. As of Sept. 17, UGA has fully vaccinated almost 14,000 students and staff. Additionally, signs bearing the message “masks encouraged” with a masked bulldog adorn most doors on campus.
Amy Ross, geography professor, said it’s not enough. She attended four out of five of the rallies because the USG’s lenient COVID-19 guidelines have left her embarrassed and confused.
“I always felt so loved here. Wherever you go in Georgia, people are like ‘Oh, you work at the university, I love Athens,’ and then they say something really nice about Athens and UGA. But now my friends from all over the world, quite frankly, and other U.S. universities are calling me and saying, ‘What is going on in Georgia?’” Ross said. “We’re national news in a bad way. Not because our football team is doing well, but because our COVID numbers and our leadership are astounding.”
COVID-19 cases at UGA are difficult to accurately track. Though positive cases are required to be reported, the initial test is optional. In addition, the lack of an online option for those sick or in quarantine adds incentive to refrain from getting tested. Self-reported DawgCheck results recorded 1,494 positive cases between Aug. 9 and Sept. 12. Cases in Athens-Clarke County are on the decline as of Sept. 17, but both hospitals were at 100% ICU capacity, forcing patients to wait for a bed to open up or go elsewhere.
“UGA is a community inside of another community: Athens-Clarke County,” said UGA student Jesse Donck-Rains. “A mask mandate is not only the obvious choice, it is the needed choice right now. It should not be a radical idea for a professor to feel safe in their own classroom. It should not be a radical idea for a student to feel safe visiting family after attending a required class.”
The hypocrisy of USG’s refusal to mandate COVID-19 vaccination frustrates Frick. For reasons of public health, USG requires all incoming students to be immunized against measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, tetanus and hepatitis B, along with completion of a tuberculosis screening. In addition, UGA requires students to wear safety goggles and take other precautions in laboratory settings.
“We have requirements all over the place, and it’s silly to think that this is anything different. This is a highly contagious and dangerous disease that has our hospitals currently in crisis,” Frick said. “It shouldn’t be controversial at all.”
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