The University of Georgia has made itself a fool.
Attending in-person class a couple times a week is a joke. The thought of Sanford Stadium with a quarter of the typical 92,746 fans is a joke. To-go food from Bolton Dining Commons is a joke.
The university reopened on Aug. 20. Throughout August, an influx of around 30,000 undergraduates — there were 29,848 enrolled in fall 2019 — arrived in Athens, where the rate of new coronavirus cases had declined in the last full week of July.
UGA needs to stop pretending to uphold a “college experience” that is simply unattainable during a pandemic. As much as anyone, we want to go downtown on a Friday night, eat at Taco Stand with friends and head to campus every day. But doing so would disregard the lives of our friends, family and the people of Athens.
We know the coronavirus is deadly. One university employee died from COVID-19 before campus fully reopened. Now, cases are surging in Athens as students hit the bars and throw parties. The university community’s single recorded death to date is one death too many. How can we expect the current situation to be better?
With the return of students, Athens’ nightlife population resurged. UGA Greek life and campus ministries have been scrutinized for lack of social distancing at events. The Delta Tau Delta fraternity house was placed under quarantine after members tested positive for COVID-19.
“The rise in positive tests last week is concerning,” UGA President Jere Morehead said in a statement on Sept. 2. “It is critically important that all of our students continue to make every effort to prioritize their health and safety by taking the proper steps to avoid exposure to this virus. … All of us must take our responsibilities very seriously as we seek to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Yes, a level of blame should rest on the students who refuse to social distance or wear masks, blatantly disregarding health and safety guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Morehead and others in the UGA administration have continuously placed responsibility on students without taking their own responsibility.
The blame should not rest entirely on students. The University System of Georgia decided to have in-person classes this fall despite the blatant risk it poses to the residents of Athens-Clarke County. Even bound by the guidelines placed on them by the USG Board of Regents, the administrators at UGA did not create a strong enough plan to keep students and Athens residents safe.
UGA instructed students to complete coronavirus training before the first day of class, but that training wasn’t required before students arrived on campus. UGA implemented DawgCheck, a daily COVID-19 surveillance application — but that is not mandatory for students. UGA reminded everyone to be “Dawg Strong,” yet its lack of concrete, progressive action to fight the coronavirus has put students, faculty, staff and Athens residents at risk.
We understand the decision to reopen UGA wasn’t easy. The university relies on tuition and fee income. Athens’ economy relies on having students in town. Businesses cannot shut down for months on end without suffering. Freshmen deserve the best first-year experience they can have in a pandemic. Georgia football seemingly makes the world go around — and certainly drives a huge portion of the city’s economy.
At the same time, Athens’ two hospitals serve Athens-Clarke along with 16 surrounding counties. UGA staff members, such as dining hall workers, custodians and housing staff are placed in dangerous positions each day. Older professors as well as immunocompromised students, faculty and staff are at risk on campus.
UGA has threatened these people’s lives by reopening. The university fails to be transparent and understanding.
If in-person classes are to take place, the CDC recommends students, faculty and staff who have been sick with COVID-19 symptoms, tested positive or have been potentially exposed should stay home. Despite this, UGA faculty were instructed on Sept. 2 to not alter the location or format of classes if a student tests positive.
The CDC’s coronavirus testing considerations for institutions of higher education stated that “screening, testing and contact tracing are actions that can be taken to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19.”
UGA’s testing program, which includes up to approximately 500 tests daily, is not robust enough to take on the coronavirus. To compare, the Georgia Institute of Technology, a fellow USG institution, had tested more than 24,000 samples in its surveillance testing program as of Sept. 3.
UGA’s process for releasing its testing data is even more concerning. UGA’s coronavirus testing data web page is far from user-friendly. The numbers are not cumulative, the charts are confusing and it is updated just once a week.
Georgia Tech lists both cumulative and daily totals in an easy-to-read format. Georgia Tech also has a supplementary page which includes “campus impact” statements with details for contact tracing, including when the person who tested positive was last on campus, where they lived or worked and where they will go to isolate.
UGA’s lack of transparency is embarrassing. Before Sept. 2, the university’s isolation plan for COVID-19-positive students was unknown to the public. The university has not answered how many isolation and quarantine spaces are at capacity as of press time.
The Red & Black has struggled to receive answers to questions and confirmation on tips we’ve received from the community. We understand many questions are difficult to answer — but why wasn’t the plan more robust before students returned to campus this fall?
With a lack of accountability and no transparency from UGA, we cannot properly inform the public. We still do not know what USG’s threshold is for a shift to remote learning, like the one announced at UNC-Chapel Hill on Aug. 17.
Cases surged to a record level in Athens this week and topped 800 at UGA. How many are too many?