Joy Morin co-created the Facebook group “Keep Georgia Universities Open” after she read about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sending students home due to COVID-19 just one week after instruction began.
The University of Georgia is offering in-person, completely virtual and hybrid classes for the fall semester. Parents on the Facebook group, who have children at University System of Georgia institutions, are advocating for students to have the option to attend in-person classes and lecture opportunities regardless of whether or not they are offered.
The group’s goals starkly contrast with health concerns over an open campus and limited testing resources.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the lowest risk for institutions of higher education involves having virtual-only learning options, with the risk increasing as more individuals are added to campus.
The Facebook group was initially designed to gauge the interest of other parents who wanted to see campuses across the state remain open and possibly coordinate efforts to contact the officials making that decision, Morin said. The group currently has over 5,000 members.
Parents are currently using the group to share stories about student experiences. The group is also reaching out to campus presidents, Gov. Brian Kemp and University System of Georgia officials — they’re in the process of organizing letters to send to the USG Board of Regents’ upcoming Sept. 15 meeting.
“We decided maybe there was something we could do to hopefully help keep these campuses open a little longer,” said Morin, who has a freshman son at UGA.
UGA’s COVID-19 numbers have increased each week since campus has reopened. The university reported 1,417 new COVID-19 cases from Aug. 31-Sept. 4. Since the start of the pandemic, the university has recorded 3,045 cases.
Stephanie Britt, whose daughter is a senior at UGA, said many parents want their students to have the opportunity to attend in-person classes. As a tuition-paying parent, Britt said students deserve “the option to choose” face-to-face learning.
“How is it fair or right that some people have the option to do what they think is best for them but the other people don’t?” Britt said.
Over the summer, UGA marketed a revised return to campus. Instagram posts and ArchNews emails explained new procedures for dorm life, dining halls and classes, as well as a mask requirement and the optional DawgCheck survey.
Online classes and making friends
The Red & Black received about 30 emails from parents who are advocating to keep UGA open.
Morin said she understands that there should be adjustments and procedures on campus to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, such as face masks and social distancing requirements. But she thinks closing campus and moving completely online would be worse than staying open.
“We’re not advocating throwing caution to the wind, but we just felt it would be far more dangerous for our students' mental health and well-being to send them all home,” Morin said.
Yet Richard Slatcher, a UGA professor in the behavioral and brain sciences program, explained that he doesn’t think the pandemic will have long term mental health effects for young students.
“Sort of taking a ‘this too shall pass’ kind of a perspective, which can be hard to do, will help people to cope,” Slatcher said.
Slatcher is actively researching the effects of COVID-19 on relationships. He suggested that an online synchronous class model is more beneficial to students than a hybrid or even in-person approach.
“I think students actually get a better class experience when I teach a class fully online and synchronously compared to hybrid,” Slatcher said. “I can actually do some activities where I can break people up into small groups online where they can actually interact with other students in ways that you can't do when you're socially distanced 6 feet away from other people in the classroom.”
Slatcher, who is the parent of two high school students, said it will be difficult for freshmen to acclimate to a new environment while trying to make new friends and stay safe.
Humans are hardwired to feel a need to belong, Slatcher said, and that need to connect cannot be met solely online. Slatcher said it’s easier for juniors and seniors to maintain their connections because they already have an established group of friends, whereas freshmen are trying to find new friends.
“To form friendships in the era of COVID[-19], it's going to be a lot harder to do,” Slatcher said. “You still can do it in a socially distanced way, but it's easier to maintain relationships.”
Adjusting to a new reality
Morin said her family talked about the risks with her son before he came to UGA. He did his own research on COVID-19-related risks in order to make an informed decision, she said.
“Even though there’s a lot of restrictions, we still felt that it was really beneficial for [him] to be there,” Morin said.
Britt said she believes each person has to evaluate their own level of comfort.
“The reward outweighs the risk, for us,” Britt said. “And I think that’s what every person has a decision, each family has to make.”
Like Britt, Morin said it’s important that each person decide what risks are OK for them.
Ultimately, the USG Board of Regents will consult with each of its 26 member institutions to determine if class will be moved to a completely online format.
The parents said it’s frustrating for their children to have worked hard to get into UGA only for them to not have the traditional “college life.” They said their children — many of whom only have online classes — want to meet with professors and learn in a physical classroom with peers, but they haven’t been given that choice.
Britt said she’s worried about her daughter’s future because she can’t get experience in the sports broadcast profession that requires face-to-face exposure, practice and live sporting events.
“Everything they know has been taken from them,” Britt said.