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Students board a UGA bus on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach; @taylormckenzie_photo)

Sydney Dorawa and Abby Aden, like many students at the University of Georgia, work part-time while in school, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still prevalent in Athens, on-campus work comes with a risk. Despite this, the two are returning to work out of financial necessity.

As of Jan. 22, there were 6,515 reported COVID-19 cases in a single day in Georgia while Athens-Clarke County reached a total of 10,455 reported COVID-19 cases, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. 

Dorawa and Aden said returning to work this semester is concerning because of increased COVID-19 cases and UGA’s increase of in-person classes, ultimately leading to more students on campus at a time.

Dorawa, a graduate student in the international policy program, works as a bus driver for UGA’s Transportation and Parking Services while Aden, a senior history major, works at Einstein Bros. Coffee and Bagels in the UGA Main Library. 

“It’s pretty imperative that I return to work,” Dorawa said. “It’s been kind of rough the last month because [UGA] Transit stopped letting student drivers work since a week after Thanksgiving break. There weren’t enough students to ride the buses to warrant having everybody work.”

Because she went home for the holidays, Dorawa said she could luckily save money on groceries and utilities, but with the new semester starting, she needed to return to work despite risks. Dorawa said she suspects students will break public safety guidelines, despite clear rules outlined on the buses.

New semester, same issues

Last fall, Dorawa said students would frequently ride the buses without wearing face coverings or masks, and would not follow social distancing guidelines. As a bus driver, Dorawa is not allowed to tell anyone to put their masks on, she said.

“The only thing we’re allowed to enforce is social distancing,” Dorawa said. UGA buses have marked off seats to encourage social distancing. However, the only way bus drivers can limit people on their buses is when there are too many people standing without an available seat. Then, bus drivers are allowed to ask people to wait for another bus, Dorawa said.

Aden said her biggest concern is the customers who come into Einstein Bros. without masks. Customers will often come into the cafe not wearing their masks properly, or customers will pull their masks down when they come up to the register to order, Aden said.

“They’ll pull it down when they order, and that completely defeats the purpose of the mask,” Aden said. “Like, why did you wait until you were close to me to pull your mask down?”

Despite risks and concerns, Aden and Dorawa returned to their jobs at the beginning of the spring semester, joining a myriad of UGA student workers, faculty and staff also returning to their jobs out of necessity.

Joseph Fu, a UGA mathematics professor and a United Campus Workers of Georgia member, said he feels like professors, who have more privileges than student workers and staff, also have the responsibility to speak out in order to protect the entire community.

Before the rise in COVID-19 cases at the start of the fall 2020 semester, Fu participated in a few organized UCWGA protests and a die-in to demonstrate outcry against UGA’s handling of coronavirus precautions.

Going into the spring semester, Fu said UCWGA called for the university to make classes online for the first two weeks to help mitigate the spread of the virus upon students' arrival back to campus after traveling for the holidays. 

The university continued with its plan to increase in-person classes this spring.

Continued frustrations

Justin Simpson, former co-chair of UGA’s UCWGA chapter, said UCWGA was concerned about the spring semester well before COVID-19 cases started to increase ahead of Thanksgiving break.

“With the spring, the only way to return is if there are necessary safety procedures, which we didn’t feel like there were enough in the fall,” Simpson said. “So we were calling on President [Jere] Morehead to implement mandatory testing in the first two weeks of the spring semester while being online.”

Simpson said these are two reasonable safety measures to ensure the safety of university employees and the entire Athens community.

Instead of implementing mandatory COVID-19 testing for students or going online for the two weeks, UGA brought students, faculty and staff back to begin the semester on Jan. 13 while pushing an effort to maximize in-person instruction.

Simpson said maximizing in-person instruction is “not only delusional, but reckless.” If the university wants to eventually increase in-person instruction, then mandatory testing and online classes for the first two weeks are “bare minimum safety conditions,” in addition to the university promising no layoffs and providing hazard pay, he said.

As the spring semester starts, Simpson said an important action for student workers, staff and faculty members to do is come together and stand up for one another against the “unfair and unjust” labor practices from UGA. 

“We're in a terrible situation. We, the [UCWGA] and other organizations around town, are doing the best that we can to repair a ship that is being intentionally sabotaged,” Simpson said. “The ship is taking on more and more water by the decisions of the university and it’s showing the need for more organized labor.”