While masks are not mandated, the University of Georgia plans to buy masks for all students, faculty, and staff, according to its new Return To Campus Guidelines. 

Opinion: Georgia should reopen campuses in fall with COVID-19 testing, masks

As a parent of University of Georgia and Georgia Tech students, I assumed they’d be required to wear masks when classes resume in the fall to protect themselves, their classmates and their professors. That is the plan on many campuses around the country hoping to restart on-site instruction. 

Sounds like I may be disappointed. In a guest piece, a University of North Georgia professor expresses concern over the likely decision by the University System of Georgia to strongly suggest rather than mandate masks.

On Monday, the University of Texas at Austin announced it was joining the growing list of public campuses that will require  all students, faculty and staff to wear face masks in campus buildings next fall to inhibit the spread of COVID-19.

Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, believes USG should follow suit.

(You can read other AJC Get Schooled columns by Boedy here and here.)

By Matthew Boedy

While many universities around the nation have released plans to re-open in the Fall, the University of System of Georgia is still mulling over the proposals sent up from its campuses across the state. 

While we await word from Atlanta, it has become increasingly obvious to many faculty members that I speak with the state will fall short on two important safety practices: testing and masks. 

Widespread mandatory testing for all faculty, staff, and students – both for the virus and antibodies – likely will not happen. 

Instead, schools will facilitate testing for anyone through already existing testing sites near campuses. While anyone who wants a test in Georgia can get one, there have been reports of results taking a while. 

To be fair, the USG in its 31-page outline for fall reopening asked campuses to consider if they can handle “rapid testing” through their “on-campus health” centers or would need a local partner. So there might be a chance of broad testing, but the practice may be even uneven around the state. 

A lack of broad testing fails basic public health. According to InsideHigherEd.com, the American College Health Association noted that a "return to an active on-campus environment will depend upon widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantine of ill and exposed individuals both on campus and in the community."

It also falls short of what other states and schools are doing. 

UC San Diego has made testing widely available for its 5,000 students still living on campus. Testing for all will occur regularly. 

In an April op-ed, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote “testing is an absolute prerequisite. All campuses must be able to conduct rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students, when they first arrive on campus and at regular intervals throughout the year." In her testimony before Congress this month, Paxson said Brown would likely test specifically at a minimum classmates and dorm residents of known positive cases.

It also is an inequity as athletes will be tested broadly as they return to campus. All athletes returning to campus this week at UGA were set to be tested. 

Yes, it may be easier for campuses attached to medical schools to test broadly. But hotspots like Albany (and Albany State) need this practice as well. 

Dr. Matthew Boedy

Some Georgia schools have announced three phases of reopening with the last being the start of fall semester. Employees will self-assess – checking their symptoms and/or temperature – before they come into work. And contract tracing will be used to isolate those infected or who come into contact with such. And everyone will be trained on how to wash their hands. 

Yes, there is a lot all of us can do to stop the spread. But there is a reason testing has been a key element of Georgia’s flattened curve. When we know where the cases are, we can do better at isolation. 

On masks, the University System has let it be known through meetings and town halls that it will “strongly” suggest masks for all on campus but won’t have a mandate. 

UGA is buying masks for all students, faculty, and staff. But I am not aware of any other school doing this. Incidentally, a package from your university with two masks surely has the impact of a mandate, even if the letter inside might state otherwise. 

The USG has said because the state and federal governments do not require masks, it won’t impose a mandate for them. Yet, the USG is following CDC guidelines and those from the state Department of Public Health, which recommend masks in public places where social distancing is hard to maintain and where community spread is significant. 

That sounds like a campus to me. It is probably why the University of Tennessee is buying masks for all and requiring them. The University of South Carolina also is making masks required. 

Yet, while Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has asked everyone to wear a mask, even exempting such people from the state’s KKK-era anti-mask law, he won’t mandate masks. 

Finally, Gov. Kemp’s May 28 public health order allows people in groups up to 25. 

Did I mention the usual enrollment for my writing classes are 24? But the rooms won’t allow for six feet between us. 

Or, to paraphrase the CDC, social distancing would be hard to maintain. 

Class, I hope everyone brought a mask. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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