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Hundreds of Athens Residents Criticize UGA’s COVID-19 Response

The United Campus Workers of Georgia union delivered 267 letters to UGA President Jere Morehead’s office on Tuesday calling on the university to do more to protect the Athens community from COVID-19.

Athens has become a hotspot for coronavirus since campus reopened for in-person instruction last month. Letter-writers pointed out that local public schools cannot reopen safely because of the spike in numbers, and raised the possibility of students and faculty leaving because of UGA’s lackluster response.

The full UCWGA news release is below:

With COVID numbers skyrocketing in Athens since the return of UGA students, United Campus Workers of Georgia (UCWGA)  has collected over 260 letters urging President Jere Morehead and the University System of Georgia Board of Regents to act. The letter writers represent a broad cross-section of affected citizens: UGA/USG students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents and other family members; CCSD parents, teachers, and students; healthcare professionals; and concerned residents of Athens and elsewhere in Georgia. 

The letters insist that not enough is being done to protect the health of students, faculty and staff, as well as the greater Athens community.

Clarke County School District parents called on UGA to think about the young students forced to attend school online. One local parent wrote: “My children, ages 6 and 9, have been forced to learn at home because it is UNSAFE to learn in a classroom with teachers due to increasing COVID infection rates. My 6-year old daughter has significant developmental delays, which means that virtual learning is wholly inappropriate to meet her needs. She continues to fall behind without access to hands-on learning and peer interaction.”

Alumni were particularly ashamed of their alma mater. “The current infection rate is so high in Athens that local public schools, in accordance with WHO guidelines, are unable to safely reopen for any in-person instruction, exacerbating educational inequities that will reverberate in Georgia for decades to come,” wrote a disappointed alumna. Alumni also wrote of the impact on the future of UGA. “If the University adheres to its plan, its reputation will be severely damaged. As it stands, many students, staff and faculty members simply no longer trust the University’s administration. Some will leave, and I suspect that in the future it will be more difficult to attract star students and faculty. Grants and donations will be negatively impacted. Ultimately, the research and ranking of the University will suffer,” stated an alumnus and scientist.

Letter writers addressed the lack of transparency and action from UGA and USG. Among their main concerns: COVID numbers are only updated weekly, and faculty have been instructed not to notify students if a classmate has a positive COVID test (a misinterpretation of HIPAA and FERPA laws according to the Washington Post). “Data suggests that right now, approximately 1 in 10 UGA students is infected with active asymptomatic contagious COVID, yet in-person UGA classes continue as professors are prohibited from alerting their students of in-class outbreaks,” wrote a local commissioner. UGA is also not conducting in-house contact tracing, despite having trained students to do so over the summer; instead, it is leaving this crucial task to the overwhelmed Department of Public Health. 

Many also noted that UGA is not providing COVID tests for faculty and staff who suspect they may have the disease and that the number of tests it is offering weekly for both symptomatic students and asymptomatic people on campus is inadequate. “At the very least, UGA’s COVID-19 response needs to rise to its peer institutions. UGA must empower in-house experts as active decision makers in the response and decision team. All courses have to move online, university housing needs to close, and much more robust testing, tracing and daily communication must be implemented to protect anyone left working on campus,” wrote one UGA alum who works in public health.

Concerned USG parents are frustrated with a lack of leadership, especially at UGA. “UGA is moving ahead full speed to bring in thousands of fans to watch football games. How can you reprimand students for gathering in groups while planning the ultimate group gathering in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of the 4th highest Covid-19 hotspot in the nation? In a word, you cannot,” writes one angry USG parent.

Athens-Clarke County is one of the poorest counties in the state of Georgia, while UGA has one of the wealthiest student bodies at a public university in the country. A concerned Athens resident wrote, “Every ACC citizen is directly affected by the actions of UGA and the burgeoning rates of incredibly infected students.” Letter writers stressed repeatedly that they did not want layoffs at UGA even if the university pivots to entirely online instruction, as such a financial decision would have a devastating effect on the local economy: “We must commit to support the entire university community for the duration of this crisis, with zero layoffs.”

The letters come against the backdrop of university officials pinning the blame for the recent outbreak on the Athens-Clarke County government, while Mayor Kelly Girtz and other city officials called on Gov. Brian Kemp to tighten regulations on businesses.

After Girtz penned a response to Interfraternity Council President Brennan Cox Tuesday morning, three ACC commissioners—Mariah Parker, Tim Denson and Melissa Link—wrote their own letter to UGA President Jere Morehead, University of System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley and the Board of Regents. They called for expanded, mandatory testing and contact tracing; wastewater testing to trace outbreaks in dorms; more flexibility to opt into online learning; more protection for dining and custodial staff; discouraging tailgating during football season; socially distanced on-campus leisure activities; and discipline for students who violate COVID-related protocols off campus.

Wrigley said at the Board of Regents meeting Tuesday morning that USG remains committed to in-person learning. Regents received in their packets letters of support for keeping UGA open. A group of parents of UGA students has organized a campaign opposing a shutdown, according to the Red & Black.