Administrators believe they’re well-prepared for the return, but no one knows for sure. The best precautions, they say, only work if everyone follows rules such as wearing face coverings in classrooms. Despite those requirements, there are many worried students and faculty members who are pushing for more safeguards or a return solely to online learning. Three Georgia Tech students living on campus were diagnosed Wednesday with COVID-19, the school said.
The test of their preparedness begins Monday when classes begin at Georgia Gwinnett College, Clayton State University and on some other campuses in the University System of Georgia. The system’s schools are spending millions of dollars to prepare for the return. UGA, for example, is spending more than $6 million on testing, cleaning, personal protective equipment, contact tracing and plexiglass partions. The system is distributing nearly 2 million face masks and 250,000 pairs of gloves to its campuses.
Whether students and faculty should actually be on campus has been a much-debated topic in recent weeks as COVID-19 cases increase in Georgia and throughout much of the country. Several private colleges in the Atlanta area — Clark Atlanta University, Oglethorpe University, Agnes Scott, Morehouse and Spelman colleges — have switched solely to online classes for the fall semester. Nearly all of metro Atlanta’s K-12 public school systems are starting the upcoming school year with online learning.
Several thousand faculty members and students at USG institutions have signed petitions urging the schools to revert to online learning, citing safety concerns. One UGA professor posted a photo of a plexiglass shield that didn’t reach his face. Critics of the return plans want several changes, such as free, weekly COVID-19 testing, and greater transparency about planning and developments. Georgia Tech, UGA and Clayton State are among the few USG schools that have posted updates online about confirmed COVID-19 cases on their campuses.
One group held a demonstration Thursday at UGA to publicize their concerns about the return plans. A Georgia Tech faculty member posted documents Wednesday that show a private company that provides student housing for several USG schools urging the system not to set room occupancy limits although “the CDC may be of the belief that reducing density in student housing may lower the possibility of infection.”
USG presidents want students on campus. They wrote a letter to the system’s chancellor, Steve Wrigley, last month making the case for in-person instruction.
“Resuming in-person classes this fall will be a difficult but important task, and it is one we are committed to achieving, as it serves the best interests of our students and the State of Georgia,” the presidents wrote.
USG officials estimate it could lose about $480 million in student fees, housing and other costs if they switched to online learning this semester, according to documents obtained in July by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act. The schools had to cut their budget by more than 10% for the upcoming school year and lost more than $300 million in revenue during the spring and summer semesters due to the pandemic shutdown.
Students have many questions about what’s being done to ensure safety. What is the process to sanitize classrooms? How are the schools planning to keep the restrooms clean? Are there filtration systems to prevent contaminated air from flowing in campus spaces?
The schools have held online meetings with students in recent weeks to answer such questions.
“I just want the University System of Georgia as a whole to make sure that they’re focused on safety over fiscal policy,” said Bryson Henriott, 19, who will be a sophomore at UGA.
Students will have to adjust. Georgia Gwinnett has removed some computers from libraries to create social distancing, and cut some operating hours. Students won’t be able to use the new basketball court, and Starbucks will not be open when classes start. At Georgia Tech, occupancy in some elevators will be limited to one person. Both schools are setting restrictions on visitors and overnight guests.
“We’re trying to create a safe, educational experience for everyone,” said Carl Woods, who is currently in charge of both Georgia Gwinnett’s wellness programs and residential housing.
“It’s doable,” he said of the ability of students to adapt to the changes.
The campuses look much like supermarkets. There are markers on the floors directing people where to walk and stand. Students will enter classrooms, and restrooms, through one entrance and exit another way.
Campus officials compare the process to elementary school; many classes will end with students leaving row by row.
It’s been more than a century since colleges faced such a health crisis. The 15 USG schools that existed when the Spanish flu created a similar national standstill in 1918 didn’t leave instructions on how to hold classes during a pandemic.
Georgia Gwinnett has spent more than $320,000 on the return plans. Signs warn people to stop and wait before entering faculty member offices. Ginger, the campus police K-9, has pouches filled with hand sanitizer and masks.
Administrators and other officials began planning for the fall return in April, said Kasey Helton, Georgia Tech’s associate vice president for campus services. The school created an app for students to order food from dining halls and have it delivered outside to limit exposure. They used recycled materials to make clear shields to separate students in labs. Officials looked at about 100 spaces to determine if they could be converted into classrooms. More than 20 were a good fit, said Paul Kohn, Georgia Tech’s vice provost.
Georgia Tech’s president’s suite now has long tables for a handful of seats in each row. There are high chairs in the back. Classes in the suite will have a maximum of 27 students. They’re offering faculty microphones to help students hear them.
USG schools will have the option of doing their own testing for COVID-19 on-site, working with community organizations and state public health officials. Students are being asked to self-screen for disease symptoms before coming to class. Some schools will have housing for students who get the virus; others recommend students return home to quarantine if possible. UGA plans to conduct about 24,000 surveillance tests — enough for half of its students and employees — with 72-hour results by the end of the semester.
Each school in the system is required to have a remote learning plan if it’s forced to close if pandemic conditions worsen, and some will allow students living on campus to stay.
Most students will not be on campus for all of their classes at any of the University System’s schools. At Georgia Tech, 12% of its courses will be completely in-person. Nearly 70% will be a mix of in-person and online. Hybrid, the colleges call it. The rest will be completely online.
Despite the changes, Kohn said about 3,400 first-year students have made deposits for classes for the fall semester, the highest number in his 10-year tenure.
The fall plans are far from uniform nationally, and they’re changing rapidly. Return plans are about evenly split between primarily online, primarily in-person and hybrid courses, according to some research.
Many Georgia students and faculty believe the driving force behind the return to campus is money, not safety.
“To be fair to (the University System), there are real (financial) losses,” said Bryant Barnes, a UGA graduate student who helped organize Thursday’s die-in demonstration against the return plans. “But there are greater potential losses. Human losses.”
Wrigley defended the return plans in a letter last week to UGA faculty.
“These plans prioritize the health and safety for students, faculty and staff, while recognizing the value and importance to students of the on-campus educational experience as one that is simply richer and more well-rounded,” he wrote.
Credit: Kyle Peterson; firstname.lastname@example.org
Credit: Kyle Peterson; email@example.com
Turan Duda, a Durham, North Carolina-based architect who designed Emory University’s student center, said colleges need to be thinking about ways to hold classes in spaces where students can get ample fresh air or have good air quality. He believes colleges need to consider ways to create touch-free spaces, noting how some public restrooms don’t have doors.
“One thing COVID-19 is doing is it’s creating discussions,” he said. “It’s going to create innovation.”
Social activities will also be different. For example, many Greek Life recruitment activities at UGA will be done online.
Georgia Gwinnett College senior Harsha Vinoy, 21, is eager to return for her final semester. She’s involved in campus organizations, such as the International Students Association, and is unsure how the activities will function, but she’s ready to see.
“I know it’s confusing for everybody, so I try not to stress about it too much,” she said. “Just take it one step at a time.”
BY THE NUMBERS
1.8 million — face masks to be given to University System of Georgia schools
$6 million — amount the University of Georgia is spending on preventative measures
443 — University of Georgia students, faculty and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March*
160 — Georgia Tech students, faculty and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 since March*
12,249 — signatures on a Change.org petition demanding changes for the fall semester
* The total includes people who were not living or working on campus when diagnosed.
Sources: University System of Georgia, University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Change.org