Pressure on Georgia university system to require masks in classrooms

University of Georgia students wait for buses at the Tate Student Center bus stop on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia, on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

University of Georgia students wait for buses at the Tate Student Center bus stop on the University of Georgia campus in Athens, Georgia, on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

When University of Georgia student Avery Warner heard about the University System of Georgia’s plans encouraging everyone to wear masks in classrooms when the fall semester begins in early August, she thought it just didn’t go far enough.

Her grandfather died earlier this month from COVID-19. Her father is a public health expert and her mother is a faculty member at the university.

So Warner wrote a letter Wednesday to USG leaders and its Board of Regents urging them to require face coverings in classrooms. The letter included links to research showing masks can effectively control the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The USG has an affirmative duty to work with the campus community not only to maintain the continuity of education but to keep us all alive by stopping the spread of this virus,” wrote the fourth-year student, who is 20. “Mandating masks across all campuses is a concrete, simple, and common-sense measure to ensure maximum safety for the maximum number of people.”

University of Georgia student Avery Warner wrote a letter to University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley and the state Board of Regents urging them to require students and faculty to wear a face covering or mask in classrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Her grandfather recently died from the disease. CONTRIBUTED

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Faculty members at several public colleges and universities and students like Warner are pressuring the system to require masks or facial coverings be worn by anyone in a classroom and some additional locations.

The United Campus Workers of Georgia last week started a petition on demanding the system require masks that had more than 5,000 signatures by the end of the week. One Instagram page calling for mandatory masks has more than 800 followers. University of Georgia professor Janet Frick recently changed her Twitter handle to "Dr. Janet Frick will not teach unmasked students."

For now, the University System is sticking to its position. It says it is following state and federal guidelines to “strongly” encourage students and faculty to wear a facial covering.

“From day one, the USG has followed COVID-19 guidance from the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” the 330,000-student system said in part of a statement. “Consistent with current guidance from those agencies, we strongly encourage everyone to wear a cloth face covering in areas of campus where social distancing cannot be practiced.”

Diego Ternero stacks and boxes finished face masks for shipping at Georgia Expo on Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Suwanee. The company has pivoted from sewing curtains to sewing cloth face masks. As business restrictions ease, companies are preparing to open, but one key ingredient to safety has been hard to find, personal protective equipment. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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Gov. Brian Kemp plans to visit several cities this week encouraging, but not ordering, Georgians to wear a mask. Though he urges Georgians to wear masks, mandating them is a "bridge too far for me right now," Kemp said, and the state continues to "hold our own" in the quest to contain the disease.

Since the University System is a public college system and follows state rules, it also is not mandating students to wear masks.

Georgia's guidelines run counter to its neighboring states, critics say. For example, the flagship universities of each state bordering Georgia are requiring everyone to wear a face covering in classrooms and some other spaces. Atlanta Public Schools is considering such a requirement for its 50,000 students.

> RELATED: To fight coronavirus, APS considers mask mandate

“We have all kinds of things to regulate student behavior,” said Ruth McClelland-Nugent, an Augusta University associate history professor. “If large, public universities in those states are making that call, I don’t understand why Georgia cannot make that call.”

Private institutions in the state like Emory University already have, with rules requiring face coverings for anyone on its campuses.

Some University System schools, such as Georgia State University, are requiring employees to wear a facial covering in some spaces, like elevators. Most will also be handing out masks. Schools are offering allowances to faculty with various medical conditions to teach from home, but critics want such accommodations for any faculty member who makes such a request.

For example, Augusta University communications professor Debbie van Tuyll said she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Her chemotherapy begins on July 6, and she said the university has tentatively agreed to allow her to teach remotely. However, she said her husband, Hubert, who also teaches at the university, has not received such an allowance. She’s worried her husband may come in contact with someone who has COVID-19 on campus.

Debbie van Tuyll is a communications professor at Augusta University. She wants the University System of Georgia to require Augusta University and its 25 other institutions to make students and faculty wear face masks or coverings in classrooms when the fall semester begins in early August. CONTRIBUTED

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“We need to make this decision based on research by physicians, epidemiologists and researchers,” she said. “We do not need this decision to be based on politics.”

To wear a mask or not to wear one has become a public debate as states move forward with reopening plans. Georgia was one of the first states to enact a reopening plan in April, which was initially lambasted by President Donald Trump and lauded by Vice President Mike Pence during an Atlanta visit a month later.

The University System has consistently followed guidelines from state public health officials and the governor's office throughout the pandemic. In recent weeks, there's been a surge in reported COVID-19 infections statewide among 18-to-29-year-olds; 29% of new cases, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis. This has many professors worried.

> RELATED: Georgia coronavirus cases spike among young adults as virus surges

University of North Georgia associate professor Matt Boedy, conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has about 400 members, emailed a group of key state lawmakers and Georgia’s public health commissioner asking for help.

“Mandated masks will help many faculty who would otherwise teach online,” Boedy wrote. “Mandated masks will slow the spread of the pandemic.”

No one responded, he said.

Though the University System of Georgia isn’t mandating masks for the fall semester, other places around the state are doing so. Mary Beth McKenna, director of religious education, checks a position for signs on Saturday, May 23, 2020, ahead of daily Mass resuming at St. Benedict Catholic Church. HYOSUB SHIN / HYOSUB.SHIN@AJC.COM

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Jim Keller, who represents about 50 colleges and universities for the higher education practice of a Philadelphia-based law firm, said “there are legal risks both ways.”

Some colleges are adding language to their codes of conduct or employee handbooks setting health and safety rules.

The conversations, Keller said, are complicated. There are discussions about what to do about hearing-impaired students who won’t be able to read lips if the professor wears a mask. There are questions about students with medical conditions who can’t wear a mask. The primary question being asked by schools considering some sort of face covering requirement: What if a student says they won’t wear it?

“Somebody, somewhere is going to refuse to do it,” said Keller, a partner with the firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP.

If that happens in her classroom, said Frick, who’s been at UGA for 23 years, she’ll ask the student to leave, hold the class remotely or explore other options. Frick believes other faculty members will act similarly. She likens a student refusing to mask to a smoker in a building.

“We need to be doing everything in our power to keep students safe,” she said.

Warner said she’s talked to several classmates who support her position. She’s hopeful the state system will change its position.

“In matters of life and death, it is unconscionable to err on the side of death,” she concluded her letter. “Listen to the facts and mandate masks.”