200817_ks_ReopeningProtest_0010.jpg

Protesters line Broad Street to show their signs to cars driving by. The United Campus Workers of Georgia, UGA Chapter, hosted a protest on Aug. 17, 2020, at the Arch in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

The United Campus Workers of Georgia’s University of Georgia chapter organized a protest in front of the UGA Arch against several aspects of the university’s reopening plans, including its infected student quarantine policy and testing policy. Classes are scheduled to begin in two days.

With loud chants and signs, approximately 30 people rallied around speakers from the union, who said UGA’s current measures don’t keep its students, faculty members and workers safe. The protesters received mixed reactions, with some drivers honking their car horns in support and others shouting obscenities. 

Speakers from the union said UGA and the University System of Georgia were prioritizing the profits gained by reopening rather than focusing on the health and safety of its workers. 

“This is supposed to be the responsibility of the UGA administration, USG Board of Regents, but they have failed us,” UCWGA UGA chapter Co-Chair Justin Simpson said to The Red & Black. “And so now we have to do what we can to protect one another.”

The UCWGA listed six demands for the university, including guaranteeing pay for all workers regardless of hours worked if the school closes, making COVID-19 testing data transparent, letting UGA staff and faculty opt out of face-to-face instruction and providing hazard pay for essential employees.

To finance workers’ pay in case of a shutdown, the union called for cutting senior UGA administrators’ salaries.

“Chop from the top,” the protesters loudly chanted several times during the protest.

Protesters condemned the university for not having a detailed plan for rehousing students who contract COVID-19. As of publication, UGA has not announced any detailed plans on how and where it would rehouse infected students or support students who have been in contact with an infected person. 

In an Aug. 4 webinar with top UGA Administrators, Vice President for Student Affairs Victor Wilson said UGA would want infected students to leave campus as soon as possible. He also said the university would work with students to rehouse them if necessary, but didn’t provide details.

UCWGA UGA chapter Event Coordinator Amelia Wheeler said asking students to leave campus immediately would only spread COVID-19 to their families, and that international students can’t easily go back home.

“We're worried that's putting the onus on individual families to contain the spread of COVID, when it could have been contended for, to begin with, if there was a more safe reopening plan,” Wheeler said. “We don't want students to go home and spread it to their loved ones, to their siblings, to their elder[ly] grandparents.”

On top of saying UGA testing isn’t sufficient, the union also disapproves of the university’s unwillingness to specify a specific threshold of COVID-19 cases that would trigger a campus shutdown. As of publication, UGA has not announced any shutdown plans.

In the Aug. 4 webinar, UGA President Jere Morehead said the USG ultimately decides whether UGA remains open or closed.

The union criticized USG’s judgment over UGA, citing how the system took several weeks to implement a campus-wide mask mandate for all of its institutions. Simpson also called for UGA to have more of a say on whether or not it shuts down its campus in response to COVID-19 concerns.

“During the webinar last Tuesday, they constantly stated how they do not have a crystal ball, but were never asking for clairvoyance,” Simpson said. “We were asking for simple detail, just some sort of basic plan.”

Two weeks ago, the union organized a “die-in” at UGA’s North Campus over the university’s reopening, where protesters posed as dead bodies on the ground in silence, which they believe may be the result of returning to campus.

Hannah Morris, a Ph.D. student at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, said she was concerned about how UGA would handle the logistics of keeping the buildings safe. On Friday, Morris said Warnell shut down nearly 20 classrooms, its mailroom and its fiscal office after a person in the department tested positive for COVID.

“If these are the kinds of steps that are going to be taken every time someone tests positive, then we're not going to be able to be open [this] week and we need to start planning for that right now,” she said.

Bryant Barnes, a UCWGA member and a Ph.D. student in the history department, criticized the university for not updating its reopening plans, which were last updated June 9, and called for UGA to communicate its plans more clearly.

Barnes and Wheeler both said they’ve heard from university employees who were concerned about reopening but didn’t speak up out of fear of administrative backlash.

“The thing that is most upsetting to me, though, is the fact that people are afraid to speak up,” Barnes said to the crowd. “So when we’re here today, we are setting an example for other workers to speak up, to expose the f---ing madness that is UGA’s reopening.”