OPINION: In reopening, University System of Georgia failed to weigh costs/benefits

A protester holds a sign opposing in-person classes Monday, August 17, 2020, at a "die-in" at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. More of the state's public universities are opening for the fall term, trying to balance concern about COVID-19 infections against a mandate for on-campus classes citing financial needs and student desires (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)
A protester holds a sign opposing in-person classes Monday, August 17, 2020, at a "die-in" at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. More of the state's public universities are opening for the fall term, trying to balance concern about COVID-19 infections against a mandate for on-campus classes citing financial needs and student desires (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Credit: Jeff Amy

Credit: Jeff Amy

An economics professor urges leadership: 'Use the data, use the health metrics – your decision can still save lives'

Michael Gove is an associate professor of economics at the University of North Georgia. He is director of the UNG Center for Economic Education in the Mike Cottrell College of Business.

In his first guest column for the AJC Get Schooled blog, Gove assail the leadership of Georgia’s public university system for failing in its decision to reopen campus classrooms to consider a basic idea he explains to economics students on the first day of class: weigh the potential costs and benefits.

By MICHAEL GOVE

The first week of classes at the University of North Georgia just ended. For many of my students, this week is often their first exposure to ideas from economics.

Because students often view economics as complicated, I always dedicate the first days to relatively simple yet big ideas of economics. One big idea they hear from me is “the economic way of thinking,” which is when we approach decisions by carefully weighing the potential costs and benefits.

I tell my students that to improve their economic way of thinking they need to be well informed and use that information to guide their decisions.

Michael Gove serves as assistant professor of economics and director of the Center for Economic Education in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia.
Michael Gove serves as assistant professor of economics and director of the Center for Economic Education in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia.

What is baffling to me is that in its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic on campus the University System of Georgia ignores this important yet simple idea from my introduction to economics.

News reports in the last week revealed that USG officials are not keeping track of COVID-19 cases across USG campuses, and they do not have any specific benchmarks that would move instruction fully online.

Or if they do, they are not telling the rest of us. Either way, it reveals bad decision making.

We all could certainly ask why.

Many students, faculty, and staff have been asking versions of that question for some time.

No answers have come.

This lack of information has filtered down to campuses across the state as many USG schools are not reporting cases, or report them only weekly – a problem already highlighted by University of Georgia public health professors.

Fortunately, we in the public and on campus have some daily data. What does the data tell us?

Look beyond the change in cases per day. Look beyond even the seven-day running total. Look at the metric the White House Coronavirus Task Force recently highlighted: cases per 100,000 in the last seven days.

Anything over 100 cases per 100,000 population in the last seven days is in the “red zone,” indicating community spread is not under control.

As of Monday, Aug. 24, Georgia College, Georgia Tech, and the University of North Georgia are all in the “red zone.”

Georgia College has the equivalent of 4509 cases per 100,000 – astoundingly, more than 45 times the threshold for the “red zone.” Georgia Tech has 419 per 100,000, and UNG has 284.

Georgia College’s cases per 100,000 in the last seven days nearly triples any county in Georgia in the last 14 days.

Leading researchers have warned that the situation at Georgia Tech is even more problematic than it first may appear because not enough people are participating in surveillance testing.

And remember Georgia College and UNG do not have any surveillance testing – testing to detect asymptomatic cases. So even though the numbers at these two schools are alarming, there are likely more cases that have not been detected simply because people are not being tested.

So where does this all leave us? I circle back to the economic way of thinking, and wonder how my students would respond after the first week of class.

They would tell the USG what I am telling it now:

We have the data. We have a metric. Let’s use them.

It’s time to go online.

Faculty, students, and groups across Georgia such as United Campus Workers of Geogia should not have to repeatedly call for this simple move.

If I can expect students in my introduction to economics classes to look at the data, be better informed, and use metrics to make sound decisions, certainly we should demand that Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley and the USG do the same.

Use the data, use the health metrics – your decision can still save lives.

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