ATLANTA — Students at more than half of the University System of Georgia’s 26 colleges and universities will return to classes this week with one eye on their studies and another on a widening global pandemic.
As the number of deaths from coronavirus in Georgia surpassed 4,000 last week and the number of confirmed cases passed 200,000, students and teachers worried a decision by the system’s Board of Regents to press ahead with in-person instruction this semester could have grave consequences.
That concern was dramatized last Thursday when about four dozen students and teachers held a “die-in” demonstration at the University of Georgia’s main campus in Athens.
“The Board of Regents is a terrible obstacle to the health and safety of the students and faculty of the state,” said Janet Murray, associate dean at the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts at Georgia Tech, the top signatory to a statement early last month signed by 865 Tech faculty members. “They have not acknowledged we’re in a state that’s having spiking rates of infection.”
A system spokesman said the campuses are taking every precaution to make sure students, faculty and staff can return safely.
“We have been stressing the best public health practices,” said Lance Wallace, associate vice chancellor for communications. “We’re not taking any measures we have not discussed with the Georgia Department of Public Health. We’re letting public health experts guide us. … We can’t eliminate all risk, but we’re working very hard in order to make it as safe as possible.”
The university system shut down in-person instruction in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Georgia. Classes continued to be held online throughout the remainder of the spring semester and during the summer.
But by July, system and campus administrators had decided to resume in-person instruction for the fall semester.
“Resuming in-person classes this fall will be a difficult but important task, and it is one we are committed to achieving, as it serves the best interests of our students and the state of Georgia,” 25 of the 26 campus presidents wrote in a joint letter to the Board of Regents. “The campus experience is an essential part of the educational growth that is critical for the overall success of our students.”
“The reason students go to college is to be in an environment, inside and outside of class, where they can have conversations that lead to growth and development,” Wallace added. “You can’t replicate that online.”
But Murray dismissed such arguments as “sentimental nonsense” that is inappropriate while a global pandemic rages. Besides, there’s no way for students to realistically realize the benefits of a campus atmosphere during these difficult times, she said.
“The college experience is going to be very different,” she said. “It has to be. To say it’s better to meet with masks on in a distanced classroom is wrong-headed.”
While administrators at each campus have put together plans to resume in-person classes that fit their individual needs, certain key elements will apply throughout the university system.
“The plan calls for the things we’ve been stressing: wash your hands for 20 seconds, use hand sanitizer, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, stay home if you feel sick, practice social distancing, wear a mask,” Wallace said.
The system has purchased and made available 50,000 COVID-19 test kits, with testing available at all 26 campuses, Wallace said. Also, each campus has a liaison who will work with a local public health office to ensure contact tracing is being carried out, he said.
Students and teachers say they appreciate the system’s decision to impose a mask-wearing mandate on all students, faculty, staff and visitors to the 26 campuses.
But Bhavin Patel, president of the College Democrats of Georgia and a rising sophomore at Kennesaw State University, said there’s been a lack of communication from administrators about specifics of the reopening.
He cited as an example a lack of information on how fraternities and sororities will be affected.
“Many of these organizations are planning to host mass gatherings for recruitment,” Patel said. “Knowing college students, we need to have proper guidelines set in place for Greek life.”
Patel called on the Board of Regents to make attendance at in-person classes optional, so students could take their courses online if they choose.
But Wallace said the benefits of in-person instruction to students are so great it’s worth doing everything possible to make it happen and ensure it can be done safely.
“Our mission as a state agency is to educate,” he said. “We can’t back away from our mandate to perform our mission even though a pandemic makes it harder.”