210917_SPF_UCWGAprotest-1.jpg (copy)

A professor holds up a sign outside the Tate Student Center during a protest organized by the United Campus Workers of Georgia and the American Association of University Professors on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 in Athens, Georgia. More than 50 life sciences faculty members are planning to require masks in their classrooms. (Photo/Sydney Fordice, sydneyfordice@gmail.com)

More than 50 life sciences faculty members at the University of Georgia will require masks in their classrooms, challenging state university system rules.

The faculty members sent a letter to the University System of Georgia stating they will be requiring all students and staff in their classes and laboratories to wear masks, even though USG prohibits these requirements. 

With no mask or vaccine mandates on campus, these faculty members are taking matters into their own hands to protect themselves, each other and their students, they said.

Scientists speak out against USG

“In order to protect our students, staff and faculty colleagues, we will wear masks and will require all of our students and staff to wear masks in our classes and laboratories until local community transmission rates improve, despite the ban on mask mandates and the USG policy to punish, and potentially fire, any faculty taking this action,” faculty members wrote in the latest version of the letter, which was sent to USG on Sept. 21.

The Google Form containing the letter can be signed by tenured life sciences professors, many of whom have worked throughout the pandemic to produce crucial research and provide education to students on infectious diseases and vaccines.

“We know what the public health measures are that work. There is not any real scientific controversy on this. There’s no reputable science on the other side of the issue. We are scientists who wrote this letter and signed it,” said Jeff Bennetzen, a professor in the genetics department. “We know this field of research and we can assert that wearing masks and getting vaccinated and socially distancing all help minimize the impact of this disease.”

The mask mandates will be implemented by the participating faculty members in early October. Other participating professors are choosing to implement incentives to further encourage students to wear masks. 

The USG, which is made up of 26 public colleges and universities, encourages students to wear masks and get vaccines but does not require them.

Bennetzen said the professors signing this letter are tenured, as untenured professors remain at higher risk of losing their jobs should they choose to implement a mandate. Tenure is permanent employment at a university awarded based on merit, according to the USG policy manual. Tenured faculty are employed until they retire, are “dismissed for cause” or released because of financial need or program modification, according to the manual.

There are multiple grounds for removal of both tenured and non-tenured faculty in the state university system, one of which is “violation of Board of Regents’ policies.”

“They don’t clearly listen to us or our advice, and therefore no progress has been made,” Bennetzen said. “We show our sincerity by not only making such a statement and making it public, but also saying that we will enforce it. We will enforce a mask mandate even though it means we will be violating USG policy in a way that allows us to be prosecuted and potentially dismissed.”

Teresa MacCartney, the acting chancellor of USG, wrote a letter in response on Sept. 22, citing an executive order Gov.

Brian Kemp passed in May prohibiting state agencies from requiring proof of vaccination in order to provide services. It also noted the COVID-19 rates at UGA.

“The surveillance testing is at its lowest rate since UGA began surveillance testing last year with only 8 of 1,167 tests coming back positive for a positive rate of 0.67%. Due to this decline in transmission, your intent to disregard USG policy and require masks ‘until local transmission rates improve’ is not necessary,” the letter said. MacCartney also emphasized the vaccination incentives UGA has implemented.

“The Board of Regents made it a priority to return to the classroom because research has shown students perform better academically with in-person instruction,” a USG spokesperson said in an email to The Red & Black. “The 26 University System of Georgia institutions have worked diligently to make campuses safe for in-person instruction, and the good news on University of Georgia’s campus and campuses throughout our state is that COVID-19 cases are declining.”

Vasant Muralidharan, an associate professor in cellular biology, signed the letter to USG and said he will mandate masks in his class.

“My kids, who go to elementary school in Clarke County, they’re fully masked, all day, in class. My kindergartner and the rest of his classmates in Clarke County are masked and they learn and they thrive and they do not complain about being masked all day in school,” Muralidharan said. “It seems kind of backwards that we are expecting more out of our 5-year-olds than we are expecting out of our 20-year-old students.”

Muralidharan said he has been researching malaria for a long time and knows how bacteria and viruses work. This pushed him  to sign this letter.

“I do enjoy being a teacher. I really enjoy being at UGA because this is a premier institute, especially for my field,” Muralidharan said. “A fellow faculty member at UGA put it as, ‘It seems like we are a political arm of the governor’s office.’ To me, politics doesn’t have much of a place in science because the virus doesn’t really care who you vote for.”

Professors create new rules

Despite USG’s unchanging stance, some faculty members are trying to take control of their classrooms — though not without pushback. 

Mary A. Bedell, an associate professor in the genetics department, planned a strategy to encourage masking. On Sept. 27, she told her class that if all students came to the next three classes masked, she would award bonus points to everyone’s grade. However, if even one student didn’t wear a mask during the class, no one would receive the bonus points for that class.

“I firmly believe that public health measures are the most important things that are going to control this pandemic. It is the only thing that is going to control this pandemic,” Bedell said.

Noah Travis Smith, a junior majoring in scientific illustration, is a student in Bedell’s class.

“I thoroughly support the actions taken by Dr. Bedell. I think it’s wonderful that she’s taking action to create a safe learning environment. I am profoundly disgusted by the lack of basic human decency and empathy of anti-maskers. They have shown clearly that they do not care for anyone but themselves, which is appalling,” Smith said.

Not everyone in the class agreed with Smith. Students debated with each other in the class GroupMe, some pleading for everyone to show up masked with others denouncing what they described as insults against people who didn’t wear masks to class.

The next day, Bedell issued a message on eLearning Commons retracting the policy.

“I have heard from multiple sources that some students are threatening to post photos on social media of students not wearing masks in class.  I do NOT condone this, and in fact am in vehement opposition to anyone doing this.” Bedell said in the post. “I deeply regret that my actions resulted in increased tension between students and additional stress in an already stressful time. Accordingly, I am retracting the two policies that were announced in class.”

Bedell instead rewarded everybody in her class a one-time bonus of three points.

Because of this potential for conflict and disciplinary action, some professors thought hard before deciding to sign the letter to USG.

“I have to admit that I had to think hard about this … but I just felt like I had to follow my conscience and I just couldn’t go on in the same way without speaking up or trying to change USG’s policy and trying to do whatever I can to protect the UGA community and the larger Athens community by reducing spread,” said Andrea Sweigart, an associate professor in the genetics department.

Sweigart said life sciences faculty are continuing to spread the letter to colleagues as the number of signees increases. Bennetzen said this decision is one of many challenges professors are tasked with.

“You can’t educate a person who is in the hospital. You can’t educate someone who’s in quarantine and you certainly can’t educate someone who is dead,” Bennetzen said. “Balancing these responsibilities is something that being a faculty member is all about.”

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