We all understand that when classes resume in-person in the fall, present in every classroom, along with instructors and students, will be a third force — the coronavirus — and there is no telling when it will be transmitted from one person to another, and another and another. But we know the coronavirus spreads through face-to-face interactions where crowds of people are in an enclosed space for long periods of time. It’s even more likely to spread in spaces that are poorly ventilated and feature loud talking, key hallmarks of most classrooms. So, the University System of Georgia, by asking students, faculty and staff to hold classes in-person, play sports and work on campus, is increasing the risk of illness and death from the coronavirus.
In Georgia the first wave of the coronavirus has never ended, and the state is on track to have over 100,000 cases by August. So it is both baffling and irresponsible for the USG to plan to resume in-person classes but not require everyone on campus to wear a face mask and not allow faculty and staff to seek accommodations because of their spouse’s or children’s risk factors. Over 2,000 faculty, staff and students have already signed the University of Georgia Women’s Caucus petition expressing their concern about these USG guidelines.
When it comes to dealing with the coronavirus, the USG Board of Regents has repeatedly announced its commitment to the health of students, faculty and staff. But its handling of the virus has been deficient. Face masks are not a panacea, but they are critical to mitigating the spread of the virus and fostering a unified, healthy campus environment. However, USG Chancellor Steve Wrigley thinks merely reminding students about the importance of wearing a mask, washing hands and social distancing is sufficient.
“We are not making any of these practices requirements but instead are encouraging everyone to follow all of these practices together. It is a shared responsibility,” Wrigley has said.
It is not a shared individual responsibility but a collective responsibility. The responsibility for making USG’s 26 institutions safe should not be pinned on the personal responsibility of individuals. Too much is at stake. As Laurence Steinberg, a professor at Temple University, argues, it is a pipe dream to imagine that students only need reminders to ensure they follow these practices, and USG has made it clear that its institutions are to be indulgent when faced with students behaving irresponsibly during the pandemic. These practices will not be enforced. Violators will not face disciplinary action. The virus will spread, and quickly.
Handling the coronavirus entails a shared collective responsibility for ourselves and others for the health of the university community. This collective responsibility must be required, just as the state requires everyone to pay taxes to provide for public goods such as USG itself. To make wearing a mask a matter of personal responsibility rather than policy means individuals can make excuses and refuse to see the benefit and protections that wearing a mask will have on themselves and others.
Furthermore, it is fair to ask: if the health of students, faculty and staff is supposed to be the number one priority in opening up campuses this fall, why does USG not allow members of the faculty and staff who do not themselves belong to an at-risk group, but who live with a person in an at-risk group, to be given the opportunity to work remotely? If my spouse works at UGA and is at-risk, but I am not, it does not make sense for her to be eligible for an accommodation but not me as well. USG’s policy — which UGA will implement — forces many faculty and staff to make a tragic choice between returning to work and risking their livelihood to protect their family. This policy is not in the interest of the health of students, faculty and staff and will only exacerbate disparities along class, race, gender and disability lines.
This is not the first time USG has made serious missteps handling the coronavirus. We all remember what happened during spring break. On March 12 at 12:14 p.m., we received an Archnews email about the coronavirus. We expected it to announce what everybody aware of the situation had already realized: we could not safely resume classes on campus Monday. Instead, we were told that “Per the USG’s direction, the University of Georgia is planning at this time to resume normal class operations following Spring Break on Monday, March 16.” After petitions and outrage voiced by faculty, staff and students, USG reversed its decision a few hours later. But the damage to its credibility had been done. The message had been delivered: USG does not take the threat of the virus seriously enough and cannot be counted on to make responsible decisions regarding the virus.
How can we trust the chancellor and the USG Board of Regents who mishandled the coronavirus in the spring, and are poised to exacerbate it in the fall, to take serious steps to prioritize the health of faculty, staff and students? I don’t, and neither should you.