Irwin Bernstein resigns

A UGA retiree-rehire psychology professor resigned on Tuesday after one of his students refused to properly wear a mask in an upper division psychology seminar class held at the psychology building. (Photo/Jacqueline GaNun)

A University of Georgia retiree-rehire professor resigned on Tuesday after one of his students refused to properly wear a mask in an upper division psychology seminar class held at the psychology building.

During Irwin Bernstein’s second class of the semester, the student, who was not present on the first day of class, arrived at the 25-person class unmasked and was asked by Bernstein to retrieve one from the advising office. The student was given a spare disposable mask from a peer but did not wear it over her nose.

Bernstein asked the student to pull her mask up to wear it correctly, but she said she “couldn’t breathe” and “had a really hard time breathing” with the cloth over her mouth and nose.

Written on the board at the front of the classroom was, “No mask, no class,” according to fourth-year psychology major Hannah Huff.

The 88-year-old psychology professor explained to the student that he could die from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and age-related problems, Bernstein said in an email to The Red & Black.

Only about 15 minutes into the Tuesday lecture, which consisted of Bernstein taking the student attendance, he asked the student to pull her mask up again, but this time, the student did not respond.

Bernstein, who was already informed that two of his absent students tested positive for COVID-19, then announced his resignation on the spot and left the class immediately.

“At that point I said that whereas I had risked my life to defend my country while in the Air Force, I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student during this Pandemic,” Bernstein said in an email to The Red & Black. “I then resigned my retiree-rehire position.”

Huff said she sat at the front of the class on Tuesday in shock, anger and silence for a few minutes, like the rest of her peers, as she tried to comprehend what happened.

“Professor Bernstein said, ‘That's it. I’m retired,’ and we watched him pack all of his papers into his bag and walk out of the classroom,” Huff said.

“Resignation was an all or none decision ... I felt some relief as I had been getting more concerned as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in recent weeks,” Bernstein said.

Some students began logging onto Athena to find last-minute seats in other seminars. Others stared at the student and asked, “You know we need this class to graduate, right?” In response, the student said, “Well, this is a blessing in disguise,” according to Huff.

Huff, who is expected to graduate in December, said she has now been moved to another upper division psychology seminar at 8 a.m., opposed to the original 9:30 a.m. class time.

“The damage is done. Obviously she has her values, and they’re clearly not going to change even when someone asked you to do something that will make them feel comfortable,” Huff said. “Bernstein is there for you [the student]. Like, he came out of retirement to do something for us, but you just can’t take it out of the kindness of your heart to put a piece of fabric on properly.”

The seminar, primarily filled with upperclassmen, is a requirement to graduate for all psychology majors. All students affected by the resignation of the instructor were moved to a new section of their courses, according to UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor.

Immediately after the class abruptly ended, Huff called her mother in panic worried that she wouldn’t be able to graduate.

“This is not what I signed up for. This was not my original plan for my final semester here. It’s heartbreaking. It’s surreal,” Huff said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ There was definitely hidden hostility in that room, and I do feel a little bit of anger toward this girl, but mainly agitation.”

Bernstein began teaching part-time at UGA in 1968 and became a full-time faculty member in 1971 while he continued research at Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center until 1993.

Although he retired from UGA in 2011, he still taught as a part time retiree-rehire for many years and was asked by his former psychology department to return this year to teach two courses this semester. Now, Bernstein will not teach either.

On Aug. 18, the first day of in-person classes, Bernstein told his students that he would teach under a “no mask, no class” policy.

Unmasked students who arrived on the first day of the seminar were directed by Bernstein to retrieve one from the front office and the Advising Office. Every student was masked during the remainder of the class time, Bernstein said in his email to The Red & Black.

Bernstein wrote in an email to The Red & Black that the head of the psychology department said he could not enforce a mask policy upon his students. UGA follows the policies of the University System of Georgia, which only encourages masks inside campus facilities and does not allow its institutions to enact mask or vaccine mandates.

The now-resigned professor said USG is in compliance with the policies of the state of Georgia which “forbids us from requiring masks.”

“I am sorry that the pandemic has caused so much dissension. I personally do not agree that stimulating the economy is more important than people’s lives and am disappointed that some people feel that it is,” Bernstein said.

Assistant campus news editor and Diversity & Inclusion Chair

Dania Kalaji is a passionate 21-year-old Syrian American junior attending the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Kalaji is a journalism major, film studies minor, Chips Quinn Diversity in Journalism Scholar and Grady College ambassador.

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