An associate professor in communications at Georgia College & State University, James Schiffman wrote a column today that speaks for the hundreds of faculty members pleading with the University System of Georgia to impose a mask mandate.
Several recent national polls show widespread student support for masks. Most U.S. colleges require masks inside classrooms. And more than 1,000 campuses have COVID-19 vaccine requirements of least some students or employees.
The state of Georgia is outside the norm in making masks optional at its public campuses, a decision the Board of Regents made to appease Gov. Brian Kemp. The decision has led professors to retire early, resign and, in at least one case, to be fired.
More professors are challenging the edict that they cannot require their students to wear masks. Schiffman is among them.
Before joining Georgia College in 2012, Schiffman was a working journalist for more than 30 years, including at the Wall Street Journal and CNN. His journalism career took him to Hong Kong, Seoul, South Korea and Beijing. At Georgia College, Schiffman was awarded tenure and promoted to associate professor in 2019.
By James Schiffman
We’ve settled into a strange new normal at Georgia College and at other institutions of higher learning in the Georgia system. We are teaching in COVID factories.
That’s what classrooms and campus buildings have become as the University System of Georgia continues to deny science and pretend that it’s 2019 all over again. The USG, doing the bidding of Gov. Brian Kemp, refuses to impose a vaccine mandate. USG leaders refuse to put a mask mandate in place. Testing and contact tracing have been woefully inadequate. The policies have turned classrooms into potential COVID-19 seas as the vast majority of students ignore ineffective messaging that encourages them to mask up.
And why should they do otherwise? Georgia College, where I teach, has sent decidedly mixed messages about preventive measures to the campus community. At the beginning of the semester, administrators encouraged in-person sorority rush and threw a block party for freshmen. Masks were almost nowhere to be seen at these super-spreader events, and, unsurprisingly, a COVID spike followed. Since then, the university’s messages that encourage masking have largely fallen on deaf ears.
It’s important to recognize that none of this should be considered normal. It’s not normal to allow students, faculty and staff to risk exposure to a potentially deadly disease when mitigation measures such as vaccine mandates, mask mandates, extensive testing and contact tracing are routinely employed in parts of the country where reason prevails and public health measures are viewed as a means of keeping people as safe as possible while the pandemic still rages. It’s also not normal for instructors to beg students to mask up in classes only to find many refuse to do so.
The first duty of people who run universities is to do their utmost to create a safe environment for learning. The policies of the Board of Regents fail miserably to do that. The rules are negligent, immoral, and grossly at odds with scientific thinking about how to combat COVID-19.
My university operates under the banner of “Reason, Respect and Responsibility.” The Regents’ policies prevent administrators from employing these lofty values — unless they are willing to take a brave stand and resist.
Under these extraordinary circumstances, I’ve taken matters into my own hands. I’ve taken one of my classes fully online and insisted that students in my in-person classes wear masks and wear them properly. I’ve asked students to spread out as much as possible. I explained to my students before the semester began that I was taking these measures to do what I could to protect them and me from contracting COVID-19. So far everyone has complied.
In taking these measures, I am violating the rules that we are supposed to operate under. I’m not supposed to take a class online without permission from the university provost. I’m not supposed to demand that students mask up; I’m only supposed to ask them to do so. We have been told repeatedly that we are operating “with no social distancing.”
In the face of unjust and irresponsible policies, I feel a moral obligation to resist. As a journalism professor, I teach my students to speak truth to power. If I don’t do so myself, what kind of behavior am I modeling?
I’m no hero. I’m in a privileged position in that my livelihood does not depend on my job. I love my work as an educator, and I want nothing more than to continue teaching as long as I am able, but I’m fully prepared to accept any consequences of my actions. The fact that I’m able to take a stand makes it more incumbent on me to speak out loudly, especially because others cannot afford to risk losing their jobs. The bottom line is this: it is simply unfair and unwise to ask teachers, students and staff to risk their health simply to engage in education.
Unjust and unsafe systems can only operate if front-line workers like university professors keep operating the machinery. Workers have few rights in the state of Georgia. We cannot strike. We cannot organize sick-outs or other collective actions that could force administrators to change policies. The one thing I can do is speak out, and that is what I have chosen to do.
I hope others will follow.
The author of this guest column, Dr. James, Schiffman, teaches at Georgia College & State University.