UGA faculty risking jobs by planning mask mandate for their classes

University of Georgia faculty members and employees gathered outside the Tate Student Center on Sept. 14, 2021 for a rally for mandates and other measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus. ERIC STIRGUS/ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM.

Combined ShapeCaption
University of Georgia faculty members and employees gathered outside the Tate Student Center on Sept. 14, 2021 for a rally for mandates and other measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus. ERIC STIRGUS/ERIC.STIRGUS@AJC.COM.

More than 50 University of Georgia faculty members say they will soon require their students wear masks in their classes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, violating rules against mandates the educators say could result in disciplinary action that includes losing their jobs.

The faculty members, many with expertise in the study of infectious diseases, sent a letter Tuesday to university administrators detailing their plans concerning the mask requirement, which they plan to start in two weeks. The potential action is likely the largest effort by faculty at any University System of Georgia school. At least one UGA professor has already enacted a mask requirement for his classes.

“All reputable research shows that vaccination, social distancing and mask requirements can reduce COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths,” the second paragraph of the letter begins. “The absence of these requirements has led and continues to lead to infections and outcomes that were avoidable and continued spread of this highly infectious disease. Due to the extreme inaction and inappropriate requirements placed on state-run universities ... we have chosen to take what action we can to protect the students and staff we directly teach or supervise, even if these actions are in defiance of current USG rules.”

UGA is part of the University System of Georgia, which has urged, but not required, students, employees and faculty to get vaccinated and wear masks in classrooms. Gov. Brian Kemp has been outspoken in his opposition to mandates.

Combined ShapeCaption
New residents of the Lipscomb dormitory exit the building past a sign advising persons experiencing COVID-19 symptoms not to enter on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 on the University of Georgia's Campus in Athens, Georgia. The University does not have a mask or vaccine mandate, and is not requiring testing. (Julian Alexander for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Julian Alexander

New residents of the Lipscomb dormitory exit the building past a sign advising persons experiencing COVID-19 symptoms not to enter on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 on the University of Georgia's Campus in Athens, Georgia. The University does not have a mask or vaccine mandate, and is not requiring testing. (Julian Alexander for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Julian Alexander

Combined ShapeCaption
New residents of the Lipscomb dormitory exit the building past a sign advising persons experiencing COVID-19 symptoms not to enter on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021 on the University of Georgia's Campus in Athens, Georgia. The University does not have a mask or vaccine mandate, and is not requiring testing. (Julian Alexander for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Julian Alexander

Credit: Julian Alexander

UGA noted in a statement that reported positive COVID-19 cases have declined significantly the last two weeks and they are committed to ongoing vaccination efforts, such as ongoing drawings offering $1,000 prizes to people on campus with proof of vaccination. The university’s statement did not directly address potential responses to the faculty group’s planned mask mandate.

“We will continue to strongly encourage vaccinations and the wearing of masks inside our facilities. We are committed to doing everything within our power to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our community,” university spokesman Greg Trevor said in the statement.

UGA, the state’s flagship university, has been the epicenter of the mask mandate dispute. The university has had more reported COVID-19 cases than any school in Georgia this semester. Several faculty members and parents say fewer students are wearing masks on campus. Longtime UGA math professor Joseph Fu, despite letters from administrators threatening disciplinary action, has told students in his classes they must wear masks since the semester started Aug. 18.

Faculty members held rallies at about 20 universities last week hoping to convince state leaders to give the universities latitude to enact mask mandates and other mitigation efforts. The system released data last week indicating a drop in new cases at most of their schools.

UGA genetics professor Jeff Bennetzen, a faculty member since 2003, said he and other professors thought prior discussions with university administrators would have resulted in their desired results. They hope this move will result in some policy changes that improve safety on campus.

“We love the University System of Georgia,” he said. “We love the University of Georgia, but the origin of that love is for the students and employees. It’s amazing to think we know masks work and save lives, yet we aren’t allowed to ask students to wear them in our classes.”