Faculty members, students and several Democratic state lawmakers demanded Monday that Gov. Brian Kemp and the state’s Board of Regents give leaders at Georgia’s public colleges and universities power to implement stronger COVID-19 safety measures.
Their most pressing demand, as new cases rise on campuses in recent weeks: a mask mandate.
The push for “local control” is the latest strategy by mandate supporters in the ongoing battle to mitigate the spread of the virus on campuses. The University System of Georgia has not mandated masks or vaccines, but instead has urged both. Kemp has said several times he’s opposed to mask or vaccination mandates, describing them as divisive.
“Effectively, our institutions are fighting a fire and prohibited from using a water hose,” state Rep. Jasmine Clark, D-Lilburn, a member of the House of Representatives Higher Education committee, told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.
Kemp’s office did not immediately respond for comment Monday. Kemp has called President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate plan “ridiculous federal overreach,” and threatened to sue to block it.
At the K-12 level, Kemp has allowed individual school system leaders to implement their own COVID safety measures, including mask mandates. The state’s public health department has also given districts the ability to set their own quarantine rules for students exposed to the virus.
COVID-19 cases reported by the state’s largest universities have risen in recent weeks with the start of the fall semester. So, too, have hospitalizations in Georgia among 18- to 29-year-olds, according to federal data. Faculty members and parents have complained many students aren’t wearing masks in classes or on buses, where it’s required.
Clark, joined at the news conference by three other Democrats, wants a hearing to discuss the possibility of additional prevention efforts. Higher Education committee chairman Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, said in a telephone interview he hasn’t heard directly from Clark and others. He believes the University System is doing a good job managing the pandemic and is willing to have positive discussions about safety measures that keep students on campus.
“I want to work with people to address their concerns, but don’t vilify anyone,” said Martin.
Safety measures for college campuses have divided many since the semester started last month. Several faculty have resigned because they want measures that require students to wear masks or allow them to teach remotely.
Frustrated faculty members took the rare step Monday of beginning a weeklong series of demonstrations demanding tougher safety measures at about 20 University System colleges and universities statewide. The demonstrations were organized by Georgia’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Its chapter president, University of North Georgia professor Matt Boedy, who’s been a vocal proponent of a mask mandate, said Monday he reported to Gainesville police receiving a letter, sent anonymously, with the image of a swastika on a mask.
“Here’s a mask for you...,” the letter said.
At Georgia State University, which has the largest enrollment in the state, faculty gathered on several campuses Monday holding signs that read “The B.O.R. Makes Us Sick,” referencing the Board of Regents.
Denise Davidson was one of a half-dozen faculty members who attended the gathering on Georgia State’s Atlanta campus. She wants the university to have local control to determine the best safety measures, saying it’s ironic “those who are opposed to mask mandates are usually those who support local control.”
“If the president and provost of Georgia State want a mask mandate they should have the power to do that,” said Davidson, who’s taught at Georgia State for 22 years.