University System of Georgia to require masks in classrooms after all

Georgia State University undergrad sophomore Emma Berman wears a face mask while navigating the university’s campus in Atlanta, Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Berman, a Cobb County resident who has asthma, says she wears the mask for herself but also because her mother has an auto immune disorder. University System of Georgia schools will require students to wear face coverings in classrooms and other campus facilities starting July 15. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The University System of Georgia announced late Monday it will require students and faculty to wear face coverings in classrooms and other campus facilities if social distancing can’t be done, a reversal of its prior position that faced widespread criticism.

More than 8,700 people signed a petition demanding the system require face coverings in classrooms as part of its guidelines to protect students and faculty from the spread of COVID-19, which has spiked among young people in recent weeks. More than 800 Georgia Tech faculty members signed a similar petition.

University System officials said they made the change in response to updated federal health guidelines. The revised University System policy takes effect July 15.

In the absence of a vaccine, masks are considered our best defense against COVID-19. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

The University System, which oversees operations at 26 public colleges and universities, previously said it was following state and federal guidelines to “strongly” encourage students and faculty to wear a facial covering.

Georgia’s guidelines, though, were counter to its neighboring states, critics countered. The flagship universities of each state bordering Georgia are requiring everyone to wear a face covering in classrooms and some other spaces.

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“After embarrassing media attention and a spike in cases in the state, the University System came to its senses,” University of North Georgia associate professor Matt Boedy, conference president of the Georgia chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said via email late Monday. “It is following the science, not the politics. It is listening to its faculty, staff, and students, who flooded it with pleas. Masks are essential to stopping this virus. Campuses will be safer because of this move.”

Anyone who refuses to wear a mask must leave the area, and repeated refusals may result in disciplinary action, University System officials said.

The University System’s rules do not apply to students in their own dorm rooms, when alone in a study room or in outdoor settings where social distancing rules are met. Accommodations will be made for students unable to wear a mask for documented health reasons.

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