Universities and colleges nationwide are requiring vaccinations and masks as they reopen amid a resurge of COVID-19 that is infecting younger Americans in growing numbers. The public campuses in Georgia require neither, raising questions of how far Gov. Brian Kemp and the Board of Regents are willing to go to placate a political point of view that is irrational and irresponsible.
“Please, do not underestimate the risk of serious consequences of this virus,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a White House briefing this week. “The delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly transmissible, represents over 98% of COVID cases here in the United States, and is driving up infections, hospitalizations, and deaths across the country.”
“The University System of Georgia’s ‘back to normal’ approach denies the reality on the ground: a fourth wave with a variant more transmissible and more dangerous to young people, cases spiking even with little to no testing statewide on campus, and of course, a small percentage of masks in classrooms. It will get worse,” said Matthew Boedy, president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors and a faculty member at the University of North Georgia.
“Leading up to the start of this semester the USG made clear that it will follow the governor’s leadership and not retreat in the face of a new surge that has or soon will overtake the last surge. All bear the responsibility of a wave now coming for the children,” said Boedy.
With less than half of Georgians vaccinated, Luedtke realized her classrooms and labs would likely include unvaccinated students. “A lot of them are young and healthy, but not all of them are. Many are first-generation students and live with their parents and other family members. I could see the bigger impact and see this spiraling out into the community. People could die by coming to my class. They could be hospitalized, and they would have to be cared for by overworked health workers. We couldn’t ask which students were vaccinated.”
Luedtke says her decision to sacrifice a job that she’s held for nearly six years and that she loved was not about her. “I am vaccinated. This was me not wanting to risk the health and safety of my students, their families and the greater community by allowing this classroom environment to exist.”
Luedtke is not alone in her fears about classroom safety, although many USG employees cannot risk losing their jobs or disrupting their tenure track. She said she does not have children to support and has some savings to fall back on. “A lot of people are reaching out to offer me leads, and one is looking really good,” she said. “But I have a little bit of savings. I plan to take the week or two to recover from what has been going on.” (Because people offered financial support to tide her over, Luedtke has set up a GoFundMe account.)
Asked about Luedtke’s case, Georgia State spokeswoman Andrea Jones said, “The university has a remote work policy and American Disabilities Act accommodation process. This employee was not eligible under the university’s guidelines for remote work and did not participate in the ADA process. She was terminated for refusal to work.”
While the USG outlaws any mask mandates, Jones noted that Georgia State advises, “You can request that a student wear a mask so long as you respect their decision and impose no consequences for not doing so. It is important to treat all individuals in our campus community with respect regardless of their mask usage.” Jones also said many GSU students are voluntarily donning masks.
Boedy has heard from frustrated and fearful faculty statewide about the University System of Georgia’s failure to require masks
“Faculty who are primary caregivers to spouses or grandparents with cancer. Immunocompromised spouses. Faculty with children in maskless schools. Faculty with moral and ethical arguments clearly opposing the USG approach. All have been denied what would have been no brainer accommodations to teach online or hybrid last spring,” said Boedy.
Two University of North Georgia lecturers resigned their positions recently instead of teaching in person this semester.
“Like the fired instructor, I too am deeply concerned about the safety of my students and the surrounding community,” said Boedy. “It’s why I offered to all my students the chance to take my classes this fall fully online. It is more work for me and so far about five students have taken up my offer. I hope more take it.”
Luedtke endorses the commitment by USG to in-person classes. In monitoring online exams where students had to keep on their cameras, she witnessed some struggling to complete tests with TV sounds in the background and family members engaging in boisterous conversations.
“I could see that some students need to be in a classroom,” she said. “I understand that and think it is important to offer that safely.”
If she could speak to the University System and the governor, Luedtke said her message would be: “I implore you: Require that masks be worn indoors at all University System of Georgia institutions. This science-based policy will give students access to in-person learning while increasing the safety of students, faculty, staff, and the entire Georgia community. Furthermore, I ask Gov. (Brian) Kemp to rescind the Prohibition of COVID-19 Vaccine Passports executive order so that the University System of Georgia can require that all students, faculty, and staff be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.”