By RACHAEL FLORA
The plan to get students back on their college campuses in Georgia has been fraught at best.
The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects have made planning for the fall semester difficult. As it stands, all schools in the University System of Georgia are planning to resume in-person classes this fall.
Inspired by similar actions taken by Georgia Tech, faculty at Georgia Southern University released a letter last week asking the System and the Board of Regents to reconsider their protocol.
"We assert that the reopening process has not prioritized science-based evidence, creating significant health risks to the Georgia Southern community and surrounding areas," reads the statement, which as of press time was signed by more than 190 faculty members. "The University has not lived up to its values by neglecting to make faculty, staff, students, and the wider community a central part of the decision making process. Furthermore, we do not feel secure that the education we will be offering to students in 2020 will be free from significant and foreseeable disruption."
The letter, which is addressed to the Board of Regents, the University System and GS President Kyle Marrero, asks to enact six protocols. One of the most crucial points of the letter is to encourage the University System to localize decision-making to each university.
"Local universities don't have any control over this process, so our president, who has tried to be as transparent as he can about what's happening, can't really make any decisions," said Heidi Altman, associate professor of anthropology in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. "The decisions he makes have to be made in concert with all the other 27 universities in the system, because it has to go through the Board of Regents."
For Georgia Southern alone, its three campuses — Savannah, Statesboro, and Liberty — are in very different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bulloch County, where Statesboro is the county seat, recorded 751 confirmed cases as of July 17. Chatham County has recorded 3,106 cases, and Liberty County has recorded 329 cases, both as of July 17.
While the three data points may indicate that not every campus requires the same reopening plan, the reopening plan applies for each campus of each school in the University System of Georgia, which counts schools across the state.
In the letter, the Georgia Southern faculty asks the System and Regents to consider allocating the decision to the university presidents themselves instead of making widespread mandates.
Another major issue the faculty finds is that student input was not solicited, much less considered, for this decision.
"Students weren't involved at all in the opening plan," said Diana Botnaru, professor in the Health Professions department. "If students or parents were asked about their preferences, I really have not seen any data on that."
The lack of opportunities for meaningful student feedback is not a surprise for anyone who remembers the Armstrong-Georgia Southern merger of a few years ago, the professors said. They argue that college students are paying money for an education, so ostensibly they should have some say in the situation.
They do understand, however, that online learning doesn't come close to the typical college experience that students seek.
"I understand the concern of parents, and I can sympathize because yes, we do want our kids to go to campus, and we want them to have the college experience," Botnaru said. "But at the same time, how many dead students and how many dead professors is it going to take for them to understand that this is serious?"
Botnaru said that faculty were asked to have syllabi ready and uploaded by Aug. 1, which is two weeks away. That, she said, is an abnormal move.
"It's even more abnormal because as of right now, I don't know the format of my class, whether it's going to be face-to-face, high flex, hybrid — I don't know," she said. "Making plans and making a syllabus for fall semester when you don't even know the format of your class is very unusual."
"We're being asked to plan for every possibility," Altman said. "It's not easy."
Botnaru explained that some introductory-level classes at Georgia Southern's Statesboro campus can be up to 250 students, which is too many students under current CDC guidelines. Even a classroom size of 35 now seats only 13.
So far, the University System has reversed its mask policy, now requiring face masks to be worn on campus. But as for what else can be accomplished by the letter, the faculty is not sure.
"It's hard to make any dramatic changes in 20 days," Altman said. "I want to express how I feel about this in the moment so historically, when people look back, they will say, 'They tried.' I don't know how much can be done in the next 21 days."
"We as professors are going to do the very best we can to make sure our students get the best quality education we can deliver in the best circumstances," Botnaru said.
Connect Savannah is a publication of Morris Multimedia, which owns the Statesboro Herald. For more, go to connectsavannah.com.