As graduate teaching assistants who are both students and instructors at the University of Georgia, we oppose the University of Georgia's contingency plans for reopening, informed by the University System of Georgia, in favor of a fully online semester. We believe that the best option for maintaining the health and safety of everyone on campus and the broader Athens community is a commitment to online instruction this fall. We are fully committed to the academic success of our students, and we affirm this stance with them in mind.
Graduate teaching assistants like us listed as the primary instructors of 827 undergraduate classes at UGA in the fall of 2019. As graduate teaching assistants, we are the front-line instructors for most majors and core curriculum classes. While other faculty members teach large lectures and upper division courses, we have the privilege to teach students in smaller environments, many of whom are in their first year. As such, we are oftentimes the first instructors to learn students' names, personalities and interests, and we strive to make them feel welcome in UGA’s community. We are still committed to this role despite the pandemic. However, being forced to teach in-person this fall would make it difficult to fulfill that role.
Our concerns will affect courses taught by all instructors. For example, “Contingency Plan 1” includes adopting a “HyFlex” model of teaching, which mandates planning an online and in-person version for each class we teach. This means having twice the workload in terms of classroom planning without additional compensation. Instead of instructors learning to be effective online teachers, which we are committed to doing, instructors would be scrambling to create excellent and equivalent in-person and online classroom environments: an incredibly difficult task to do well.
The largest problem, however, is that in-person instruction in shared spaces for a campus this size is a risky endeavor for all of us. UGA has purchased masks for our community that they plan to distribute, but instructors are not able to mandate their use in the classroom. The plan thus far has simply emphasized personal responsibility as the main means of not spreading the virus.
In lieu of any ability to mandate mask use across campus, and given the difficulties presented in the currently proposed HyFlex teaching model, we believe that moving fully online in the fall semester is the only ethical and viable option available to fully protect the health and well-being of all from a virus that has killed over 127,000 people in the U.S. alone.
We know that students can thrive in online education environments. UGA was happy to report that students maintained academic excellence despite losing two weeks of instruction and abruptly shifting face-to-face courses to an online format. Yet, as it currently stands, instructors are forced to “Prepare to Pivot,” which amounts to unnecessarily drafting various versions of course materials rather than perfecting online teaching. We now have the knowledge and resources available to prepare engaging and meaningful courses online, but we need the time to focus on online learning and ensuring equal access for all students rather than aimlessly “preparing to pivot.”
Bringing our UGA community back on campus when the risk of contracting a virus with no vaccine almost guarantees that members of the UGA community will contract COVID-19. Some in our community may die due to the irresponsible decisions being made by USG. We understand the economic losses UGA has taken due to the coronavirus crisis, and we know that this is a multifaceted issue that cannot be addressed in full in this opinion piece. However, we must remember that human life is always worth more than any amount of profit. We believe that the option to move courses online this fall is the most viable and ethical plan for fall instruction. Even if one death is prevented by being fully online, that outweighs any positive economic outcome from a hasty return to campus.