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Faculty push not moving Georgia colleges on masks, vaccines
On Aug. 11, the first day of the 2021 Fall semester, Georgia Southern freshman Daeshia Mack, 18, masks up and finds a little space in an upstairs nook at the Russell Union. While masks are encouraged on the GSU campus, in classrooms and the library, they
On Aug. 11, the first day of the 2021 Fall semester, Georgia Southern freshman Daeshia Mack, 18, masks up and finds a little space in an upstairs nook at the Russell Union. While masks are encouraged on the GSU campus, in classrooms and the library, they are not required. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

ATLANTA — Protests from faculty members are still rising in Georgia's public universities, although leaders of Georgia's university system are not backing down from their position that schools can't require masks or vaccines.

Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney made clear Thursday that those policies aren't going to change, saying the system will follow the lead of Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican lawmakers who control the university system's purse strings.

"We are fulfilling our institutional missions to deliver higher education and services for students in a way that is best for them," MacCartney said. "Those expectations have been made clear since before the semester started. It should be no surprise. There are consequences for those not following through and doing their jobs."

The remarks earned an unusual round applause from regents, who were almost all unmasked. They were surrounded by dozens of university presidents and administrators, who were almost all masked.

She spoke on the same day that faculty groups at the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State University passed resolutions calling for mask and vaccine mandates, as well as for letting campuses make their own decisions, including about whether faculty should be able to shift classes online. The University of North Georgia faculty passed a similar resolution earlier. 

A handful of professors have resigned, and at least one has been fired, because of their disagreement with system policies that don't allow universities to mandate masks.

"The governor appointed a Board of Regents that doesn't care about our health and safety, that doesn't care if people get sick and die," said Wendy Simonds, a Georgia State University professor who helped organize a Thursday "die-in" protest backed by the United Campus Workers of Georgia, a labor union. "I've never been this angry at the Board of Regents."

Last year, there were also protests as some faculty and students pressed the university system to cancel a number of in-person classes the system had mandated. The university system mandated masks last year and let some professors teach entirely online. Some of the system's 340,000 students found themselves living on campus but attending almost all classes virtually. System leaders pledged in March that this fall would be "normal," with full classrooms, dormitories and stadiums.

Data shows that students in the traditional college age bracket of 18-22 have long reported high COVID-19 infection rates. The number of cases in that age group has climbed during Georgia's current infection wave, but has been outstripped on a per-capita basis by children aged 5-17. The Georgia conference of the American Association of University Professors counted more than 4,400 cases of COVID-19 reported on the state's university campuses in August.

At this time last year, Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville, Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and UGA in Athens were battling some of the highest per-capita COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation. State public health data show infection rates among residents 18-22 in those communities are not as high as last year, but remain high.

MacCartney said the university system continues "to be in alignment" with Kemp, who appoints all the regents but is not supposed to dictate their decisions.

"Gov. Kemp said last week at the Capitol that he believes mandates calls division on campuses and does not support them," she said. "He further stated he believes those who want to wear a mask should weather wear them to protect themselves and others. He expects the university system to continue to focus on getting everyone who's eligible vaccinated into educate an advocate about why it's so important."

She also said that while the university system will accept "robust debate," people should be respectful.

"Attacking our presidents and campus administrators is not productive, and does not and will not drive how we make decisions within the University System of Georgia," MacCartney said.

Faculty, though, plan more protests starting Monday and continuing each day next week on at least 15 of the system's campuses. But even some of the protest organizers say it's unlikely to persuade the system administration.

"There is no number too high that the regents are going to change this policy," said Matthew Boedy, a University of North Georgia professor who is conference president of the Georgia AAUP.

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