The University System of Georgia (USG) says it will “strongly encourage,” but won’t require, students and staff to wear face coverings when classes resume fall semester. Some professors and students say that doesn’t go far enough. More than 7,000 faculty, staff, and students from across the university system have signed a petition asking USG to reverse course and require face coverings. Some students and faculty have also been outspoken about the issue on social media.
Elevating the Curve?
Georgia’s coronavirus cases are on the rise, and Gov. Brian Kemp has toured the state this week urging Georgians to wear masks in public. Still, Kemp says he won’t mandate them for now. The university system won’t either. That makes Georgia an outlier, says University of Georgia psychology professor Janet Frick.
“When you look at our surrounding, very red states, those states don’t have a statewide mandate, but on college campuses, they are still requiring that,” Frick says. “So it is within the power of Chancellor Steve Wrigley and the Board of Regents to issue a mandate as best practice for campuses. They have that authority. It’s not governor Kemp, it’s the Board of Regents.”
Frick has developed a spreadsheet comparing Georgia’s public colleges to others in the southeast. She has also changed her twitter handle to “Dr. Janet Frick will not teach unmasked students.”
Although she feels strongly about requiring masks, she doesn’t need to add more work to her very full plate.
“I need time to work on my research, to work on grants,” she says. “I have an international online conference next week…and my email inbox is flooded with people who are like, ‘What can we do? How can we fight this?’”
Frick says she could save time if the university system would just make masks mandatory.
When asked about whether the system would consider requiring masks if Georgia’s COVID cases continue to increase, a spokesman sent the following statement:
“The safety of our students, faculty, and staff is the University System of Georgia’s top priority. From day one, the USG has followed COVID-19 guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Consistent with current guidance from those agencies, we strongly encourage everyone to wear a cloth face-covering in areas of campus where social distancing cannot be practiced. Additionally, we encourage those on our campuses to frequently wash their hands for 20 seconds, avoid touching their faces, and maintain a safe distance of at least six feet from others. Anyone exhibiting symptoms such as an elevated temperature, cough, and shortness of breath should stay away from campus.”
‘Shifting the Burden?’
Dan Weiskopf is a professor of philosophy and associate faculty in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University. He co-authored a letter to administrators at GSU and the Board of Regents, urging them to mandate face coverings on campus. Almost 200 faculty signed the letter over the weekend.
“Classroom environments are enclosed spaces with limited ventilation where people are talking, laughing, sneezing, coughing, in close proximity for extended periods of time,” Weiskopf says. “Those fit almost precisely the ideal environments for the spread of coronavirus.”
Weiskopf says when USG or individual colleges don’t mandate face coverings, they shift responsibility onto students and staff.
“The institution has the duty to establish a framework of care for everybody who is within it,” Weiskopf says. “Devolving the responsibility to individuals to make these decisions for themselves and to settle disputes among themselves, is I think, shifting the risk and shifting the burden of decision away from where it really should be.”
Both Weiskopf and Frick say they’re concerned about students of color, whose communities have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19. Frick says USG’s decision not to mandate masks reflects its views on racial justice. She says it seems like colleges aren’t sensitive to the needs of some students after weeks of protests across the country in the name of racial justice.
“Now we have an illness which…disproportionately affects members of the Black community,” she says. “So we’re supposed to turn and say to our students, ‘We really hear you…but yet we’re not going to institute the most basic protections and require that everyone be part of a team effort to reduce risk on behalf of the most vulnerable parts of our population.’”
Private colleges and universities in Atlanta, including Emory, Morehouse, Spelman, Clark Atlanta, and Agnes Scott will all require face coverings and COVID-19 testing for staff and students.