Opinion: Regents and Gov. Kemp on wrong side of history and science on COVID

Failure to require masks on state campuses puts politics before public health

This is one of two editorials from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editorial Board to appear on the main Opinion page to spotlight important issues about the coronavirus outbreak in the Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, edition.

In a new public service spot about fighting COVID-19, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp proclaims, “Let’s take the politics out of it.”

We agree. With hospitals filled with COVID-19 patients and state fatalities above 21,000, Kemp can start by mandating masks at Georgia’s 26 public colleges and universities. The governor and the Board of Regents have resisted requiring masks this year because they fear political fallout, even though masks were required last year on public campuses. The 2020-21 mask policy came after intense pressure from student and faculty groups.

But Kemp’s voter base has now come to regard masks as a matter of personal freedom rather than public health, despite an unrelenting pandemic that’s killed about 680,000 Americans. Kemp describes mask mandates as “government overreach,” ignoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance that indoor masking limits the spread of the virus.

Kemp and the 19 Regents, appointed by governors to 7-year terms, may be willing to gamble with other people’s lives for political gain, but many college professors refuse to be complicit. Pronouncing the state’s campuses COVID-19 factories, Georgia College and State University journalism professor James Schiffman said, “This is one of those times when conscience requires me to take a stand against unsafe and unjust policies, to speak truth to power as we teach journalism students to do, and, as an educator, do my utmost to teach my students in the safest and most effective ways possible.”

Acknowledging his defiance could cost him his career, UGA math professor Joseph Fu said, “As a senior tenured professor, I believe I could have gotten away with taking these measures — in-class mask mandate, going online if we pass a certain threshold of COVID hospitalizations — by keeping quiet, but that would miss the point. I went public in order to encourage my colleagues to act, and to demonstrate to the administration — from the acting chancellor on down — that unquestioning obedience to absurd policies is not our only option.”

In the Red and Black, UGA’s independent campus newspaper, students in Fu’s Calculus III class this week wrote: “Calculus is an undeniably difficult subject to learn, even without an ongoing pandemic. Particularly at this level of mathematics, it is important to have a professor who understands the material, is approachable and kind to students and genuinely cares about student success. Dr. Fu is that professor ... . Yes, everyone hates masks. They’re uncomfortable, particularly in the Georgia heat. But it’s a simple matter of keeping one another safe.”

As Georgia College and State University senior Caitlin Banks said, “I think that college students have a lot to worry about in regards to their classes and I don’t think that their physical health and safety should have to be one of their primary concerns. I think requiring masks and distancing in classrooms is the best way to keep students safe and promote an effective learning environment at this time. While I do wear a mask to all of my classes, the majority of students that I have observed do not.”

In a Kaplan national survey of college students released this week, 79% endorse masks for indoor settings, and 72% favor colleges requiring them to be vaccinated if they want to attend in-person classes.

Many private colleges require masks and COVID-19 vaccinations for face-to-face classes. Among the more than 1,000 U.S. campuses with some form of mandatory vaccine policy are Emory University, Agnes Scott College, Oglethorpe University, Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College.

The Regents and the University System of Georgia employ hundreds of experts in infectious diseases, viruses and public health, Yet, they have ignored petitions, faculty senate resolutions and campus rallies pleading for masking and vaccination mandates.

In a letter this week to the Regents, UGA faculty members in the life sciences said they intend to require masks in their classrooms and laboratories, saying, “To protect our students, staff and faculty colleagues, we will wear masks and will require all of our students and staff to wear masks in our classes and laboratories until local community transmission rates improve, despite the ban on mask mandates and the USG policy to punish, and potentially fire, any faculty taking this action.”

Kemp and the Regents are on the wrong side of science and history. Even among Republican-controlled Southern states, Georgia is an outlier. The flagship universities in Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina require masks in classrooms.

Kemp is not only discounting the scientists within Georgia’s university system. He is ignoring warnings from historians that his politically driven actions in the worst health crisis to ever face Georgia will define his legacy.

The Editorial Board.