Now that vaccines are here, we all wish the pandemic was over. But the virus doesn’t care what we want. Unless urgent mitigation measures are taken, the rise of the Delta variant threatens an ever-greater surge of infections than we are already seeing. This next wave will mostly hit unvaccinated people, but we can also expect “breakthrough” cases among vaccinated people.
The CDC has long urged all Americans to get vaccinated as the best protection against COVID-19. Faced with the new threat from the Delta variant, on July 27 the CDC changed its guidance. It now recommends that everyone, vaccinated or not, should wear protective masks in indoor settings in places where COVID-19 is surging. All but four counties in Georgia fall into this category. The guidance applies to classrooms and offices at institutions of higher learning in Georgia.
As centers of research and learning, Georgia colleges and universities bear a responsibility to take the lead in educating and protecting the public—beginning with our own campuses. Instead, the opposite has been happening: The Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has ordered a full return to normal operations. The BOR must reconsider its guidance in light of changing circumstances.
It is imperative that the Board of Regents immediately mandate that all students, faculty and staff be vaccinated against COVID-19. The board has full authority under its own policy guidelines to order a vaccine mandate.
Students, faculty and staff watched in dismay when, in the summer of 2020, the BOR unveiled a plan to “safely reopen” campuses. The result was a major spike in COVID-19 cases. This year, the BOR once again threatens to undermine their own goals, rolling the dice that we can simply return to campus as if nothing had happened. As of July 25, only 38% of Georgia adults had been fully vaccinated. In Baldwin County, home to Georgia College and State University, the number is 33%. Percentages will increase by the fall, but by how much? USG communities have no data on the vaccination rates on our campuses. Without a vaccine requirement, we will find ourselves once again guessing about our level of risk.
It is still possible to open safely this fall, but only if the following minimum conditions are met:
• Full vaccination must be required for employees and students at all Georgia public institutions of higher learning, except for reasonable medical or religious exemptions. Hundreds of colleges and universities around the country—including public universities—have put this requirement into effect. If vaccination is not possible for medical or religious reasons, a negative COVID test every week would be a sufficient substitute.
• The mask mandate must be renewed: students, faculty and staff must wear protective masks when indoors on campus, including classrooms, offices, dormitories, indoor auditoriums and sporting venues.
• Vaccination rates among students, faculty and staff, and new COVID-19 cases, must be aggregated and reported daily on each campus.
• In the absence of adequate infection and vaccination data, all instructors must be authorized to enforce COVID-19 protocols in their classrooms, in accordance with CDC guidelines for institutions where not everyone is fully vaccinated. This includes an option to take classes fully online until it is safe to return to the classroom. Accommodations must be provided for students and employees who have conditions or circumstances that make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, including the option to teach or perform work duties online.
• Wastewater testing—measuring levels of the coronavirus in community sewage, as conducted by Erin Lipp’s team at the University of Georgia—must be implemented and expanded throughout the USG.
• Accommodations for employees and students who are at elevated risk from COVID-19 must be extended to workers and students who share a household with individuals at high risk. Protections must be afforded to staff members at risk who are unable to work at their regular jobs remotely to include alternative work arrangements and a continuation of salary for as long as an accommodation is necessary.
• Each USG institution must work not only to inform surrounding communities about the importance of vaccination, but also to take the lead in administering doses.
• Ventilation conditions of all buildings on USG campuses must be published prominently and updated on a timely basis.
Joe Fu is a professor of mathematics at UGA. James R. Schiffman is an associate professor of communication at Georgia College & State University. Both are members of the United Campus Workers of Georgia.
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