The University Network

Georgia Colleges Aren’t Requiring Masks. What About Other Schools?

With cases of COVID-19 rising in many U.S. states, the colleges and universities that intend to reopen in the fall are forced to make critical decisions regarding how to best educate their students while also preventing the spread of the virus.

While some institutions, like Yale University and Harvard University, are going as far as to require routine COVID-19 tests for all undergraduates on campus, all 26 public institutions in the state of Georgia aren’t even requiring that their students wear masks. 

However, Georgia’s public institutions didn’t make their decisions independently. Rather, they are following rules set by the University System of Georgia (USG) and its Board of Regents.

Wearing a mask is one of the easiest and effective ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19, according to the CDC. Yet, requiring Americans to wear masks remains a highly politicized and contested issue. 

In dissent of the USG’s rules, more than 850 faculty members at the Georgia Institute of Technology have signed a letter expressing their view that reopening campus without requiring facemasks is dangerous and doesn’t follow science-based evidence. 

“We are alarmed to see the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia mandating procedures that do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students, and staff, and interfere with the nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to Covid-19 infection risk,” the letter states.  

In the letter, Georgia Tech’s faculty members also ask that the USG gives the president of Georgia Tech the autonomy to determine health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community. 

Independently, Georgia Tech has released guidance that “strongly encourages” students to wear face covering while on campus. The university has also promised to provide masks to those on campus prior to fall semester, but, due to the rules currently in place, Georgia Tech cannot require students to wear masks. 

Similarly, the University of Georgia (UGA) is spending about $300,000 to provide two cloth face masks for every student, faculty and staff member on campus, according to TheRed&Black, the university’s student-led newspaper. 

And, already, more than 8,400 students, staff, faculty and family members across Georgia’s 26 public institutions have signed a Change.org petition asking the USG to require those on campus wear masks, among other things. 

“My son attends a USG college … but I don’t want him to go unless there are masks,” one concerned mother wrote in the comment section of the petition. “Colleges in other states are making them mandatory, why is Georgia failing to do so?”

At this point, USG institutions appear to be in the minority. Nearly all colleges and universities across the country, other than the public institutions in Georgia, will require face masks when they reopen in the fall. 

A spreadsheet, put together by faculty at UGA and included in TheRed&Black’s article, highlights the mask policies of the top 50 public colleges and universities in the United States. Among them, only UGA and Georgia Tech will not require face masks on campus this fall. 

Notably, the list includes fellow southern schools like the University of Texas at Austin, Florida State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Florida, the University of Kentucky, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the University of Missouri, among others. 

And although campuses still largely remain closed, cases of COVID-19 have already spiked at many of the country’s colleges and universities, including at the University of Washington, where at least 112 students living in fraternity houses have contracted the virus, and at UGA, which announced that 154 people on campus — both students and faculty — have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Research shows that young people with COVID-19 are more likely to show less severe symptoms, which is dangerous because they can spread the virus without even knowing it. 

While the virus may not be as dangerous to them, passing it on to older professors, for example, could be extremely harmful. 

In that regard, a group of more than 1,000 faculty members at Pennsylvania State University signed a letter to the president asking, in part, for permission to bar any student who doesn’t wear a mask or adhere to other safety protocols from attending their in-person classes. 

Paul Kellermann is one of the Penn State professors to sign the letter. In an article published by Esquire, he explained his perspective on the risks professors are being asked to take by teaching their courses. 

“(A)s much as I love brick-and-mortar teaching, I shudder at the prospect of teaching in a room filled with asymptomatic superspreaders,” he wrote. “The university cannot — and should not — monitor student behavior twenty-four hours a day. And students being students will do what students have always done: congregate in packs, drink heavily, and comingle. That is the nature of college culture, with campus serving as a petri dish for the spread of the coronavirus. Teaching in such conditions is a risk many are unwilling to take, especially when the steps taken to mitigate the risk are pedagogically unsound.”