Georgia professor bucks administrators to order masks in classrooms

A groundswell of Georgia professors, frustrated that their schools and the University System of Georgia are not requiring students to wear masks in classrooms to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, are demanding administrators mandate such requirements, and in one case, requiring masks anyway.

The University of North Georgia’s faculty senate overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Friday asking its president and the University System chancellor to require masks in indoor settings consistent with federal public health guidelines. Meanwhile, longtime University of Georgia math professor Joseph Fu said he has required students wear masks in his two calculus classes, which have about 30 students each, since the semester began Aug. 18.

“My hope is that I might inspire others to do the same thing,” Fu told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The 26-school system recommends, but does not mandate, students wear masks in classrooms, particularly if they haven’t been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. Faculty members at several University System schools have resigned this week because they would not teach in person unless students were required to wear masks or face coverings. Georgia State University staff member Cody Mullins Luedtke was fired because she would only teach in person if masks were worn in her classes.

Fu, who’s been a vocal critic of the university’s COVID-19 safety provisions since the pandemic began, said his classes do not have enough space for everyone to practice social distancing. He said he thought about enacting a classroom mandate for several weeks, based in part on his concerns about COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the Athens area. He explained his rules to students in an email two days before the semester began.

Credit: Julian Alexander

Credit: Julian Alexander

Fu, who said he provides masks for students if they don’t have one, records his lectures and shares them via Zoom.

“Based on my readings of the situation in our classroom, on campus, and in the community, I reserve the right to cancel all face to face meetings and conduct all class business over zoom. I understand that zoom is not ideal, and will not take this step lightly,” he wrote students.

So far, he’s heard no objections from students. Fu, a tenured professor who’s taught at UGA since 1985, said he’s prepared for any disciplinary action, including termination.

“I’m a person who walks by faith and not by sight,” said Fu, 64. “If that happens, maybe I’ll find something better.”

UGA spokesman Greg Trevor noted the university and system’s guidelines in response for comment.

“While the University highly recommends that everyone wear masks inside campus facilities, this is ultimately an individual decision, and USG rules do not authorize individual faculty or staff to require face coverings in classrooms or campus buildings,” Trevor said in a statement.

UGA officials declined further comment.

Positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on various campuses and hospitalizations among college-age students have increased since the fall semester began a few weeks ago. The number of reported positive cases doubled at UGA to more than 200 during the most recent seven-day stretch from the prior week. Other larger University System schools have reported similar increases. The University of North Georgia has had 146 confirmed cases in the last two weeks. The schools note many of the positive cases are self-reported.

Credit: Julian Alexander

Credit: Julian Alexander

Meanwhile, 281 Georgians between the ages of 18 and 29 were hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Thursday, federal data shows. Hospitalizations among that age group increased 19% from the prior week, the 13th highest rate in the nation, according to the data.

The University System has said it strongly encourages students, employees and staff to get any of the COVID-19 vaccines, but has not made it a requirement. System officials have recommended anyone on its campuses who haven’t been vaccinated to wear masks in spaces where social distancing cannot be done. Gov. Brian Kemp has repeatedly said he opposes mask and vaccination mandates.

However, more than 4,000 faculty members and students have now signed a petition demanding the system mandate vaccinations and face masks. The largest private colleges and universities in the Atlanta area have all mandated vaccinations.

University of North Georgia professor Matt Boedy applauded the vote by his colleagues.

“This resolution is being echoed in other faculty bodies at other schools. I plead with the USG and the governor to re-instate its mask mandate. It will get worse if we don’t,” said Boedy, Georgia chapter president of the American Association of University Professors.

UNG President Bonita Jacobs sent the faculty senate’s chair a letter Friday saying she understood their concerns, but it is a system-level policy matter.

“We will continue to emphasize the importance of wearing a mask when inside campus facilities, getting vaccinated and other health protocols,” she wrote.

System officials have said they are following state public health guidelines to determine its guidance. UGA and many University System schools are offering vaccinations on their campuses. UGA has implored students through social media to get the vaccine and is planning drawings in the coming weeks offering $1,000 to fully vaccinated students, employees and faculty.

Fu, though, doesn’t believe the drawings are enough of an incentive. A mandate, he said, is a better solution.

For now, Fu will be back at work on Monday and closely watching the case numbers to determine his next move.