Renewed push for Georgia universities to conduct more COVID testing, online classes

Kristen Cranford administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Michael Scott, chief nurse administrator for the Clayton State University School of Nursing, on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, the first day of spring semester classes.
Kristen Cranford administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Dr. Michael Scott, chief nurse administrator for the Clayton State University School of Nursing, on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, the first day of spring semester classes.

Credit: Clayton State University

Credit: Clayton State University

Some faculty members and students are demanding Georgia’s public university system conduct mandatory COVID-19 testing and enact other safety measures as classes resume this week as schools hope to have more in-person instruction this new semester.

The pleas come as COVID-19 deaths nationally are at their highest levels, intensive care units are at or near capacity at many local hospitals and a more contagious variant of the virus has been detected in Georgia.

“Yet the response of the (University System of Georgia) is unchanged, except to urge our campuses more forcefully toward face to face activities, all while withholding critical information and resources that might enable a safe return to classrooms and campuses,” Joe Fu, a longtime University of Georgia math professor, and Tim Hedeen, a conflict management professor at Kennesaw State University, wrote Monday in an op-ed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

They note these are their views and not those of their universities.

Another group of faculty members and graduate students, the United Campus Workers of Georgia, is planning a news conference Tuesday to raise similar concerns.

University System leaders have said since late September they want its 26 schools to have more in-person courses this semester, saying in part more students want it. The schools believe they’re better prepared to protect students and employees.

University System schools are encouraging students to get tested before returning to campus, but it is not mandatory. Several public universities in neighboring states, and Emory University, Georgia’s largest private university, are requiring some students to be tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus.

One University System school, Gordon State College, announced late Friday it will delay the start of its spring semester by nearly two weeks, from Wednesday to Jan. 25, because of the local and national rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Kirk Nooks is the president of Gordon State College.
Kirk Nooks is the president of Gordon State College.

Credit: University System of Georgia

Credit: University System of Georgia

“After careful and thoughtful consideration of our campus community, we view this decision as the right move to take for the continued health and wellbeing of Highlander Nation,” said Kirk A. Nooks, the college’s president.

Gordon State, located about 60 miles south of Atlanta in Barnesville, the Lamar County seat, is one of the smallest schools in the University System of Georgia, with about 3,200 students last semester. Lamar County, which has about 19,000 residents, had 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks, one of the highest rates in Middle Georgia and the state.

ExploreOPINION: Georgia campuses still in denial about COVID

Gordon State’s decision was applauded by the United Campus Workers of Georgia, which is pushing for several safety measures such as mandatory testing for all workers and students at the start of the semester and allowing instructors to teach remotely without requiring a medical notice.

COVID-19 cases soared at many public Georgia universities during the start of the fall semester as they offered a mix of in-person courses, a hybrid combination of in-person and online courses and completely online classes. The numbers declined only after increased testing and threats to discipline students who didn’t follow social distancing guidelines.

August 20, 2020 Athens - Students and faculty members wait in line at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia started classes for the fall semester on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
August 20, 2020 Athens - Students and faculty members wait in line at COVID Surveillance Asymptomatic Testing center at Legion Field as the University of Georgia started classes for the fall semester on Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

University of Georgia housing officials said in an email Monday to students, their families and others that students who live on campus had grade-point averages 6% higher than their off-campus peers last semester.

Critics of the University System’s position are pointing to new federal research in hopes that students aren’t penalized for not attending classes on campus because they fear testing positive for COVID-19.

U.S. counties with large colleges and universities with in-person instruction saw an increase in positive COVID-19 cases, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention study released last week. The study, though, did not take account of whether students testing positive were physically present on campus.

The University of Georgia sent a message Monday that says enforcement of classroom attendance is the responsibility of each instructor.

UGA graduate student Savannah Downing, a leader of the campus workers group, said none of the 70 students came to an in-person class she worked in as a teaching assistant by the end of last semester. The students, she said, said in a classroom survey they still learned effectively.

“I don’t feel like our voices are being heard,” Downing said of state officials in an interview Monday.

Back to school

Here’s the first day of spring semester classes for some of the Atlanta region’s colleges and universities:

Jan. 11 - Clayton State, Georgia State, Kennesaw State, University of North Georgia, University of West Georgia

Jan. 13 - University of Georgia

Jan. 14 - Georgia Tech

Jan. 19 - Georgia Gwinnett College

Jan. 25 - Emory University (for most students)

Feb. 1 - Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Spelman College (in-person for some students)

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