Part III: Getting Back to Normal

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Oct 18, 2021
Key Points
  • Georgia professors risk being fired or suspended for moving classes online amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • New discipline policy came as Georgia grappled with high COVID-19 case numbers due to the Delta variant.
  • State officials defend in-person class policy by citing lower academic performance for students in online classes.

Amid criticism, university system officials have been battered both ways with complaints from Georgia residents who want classroom mask mandates on the one hand, and on the other from those who staunchly opposed any mandates. In an email sent on Sept. 3, the university system’s top official, Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney, forwarded her staff a resolution from Georgia College’s Tri-Beta biology honor society that condemned the ban on classroom mask mandates.

“These policies do not align with [federal health] guidelines and are creating unsafe environments for students, faculty, staff, and put not only them but their family members and the community members at risk,” the student group said.

Less than three weeks later, MacCartney shared another email with her that she received from a Georgia resident who blasted a local professor’s decision to defy the mask-mandate ban.

“Even for those hoping for mandates, current Covid numbers just don’t support their ‘science’,” the resident emailed MacCartney’s office on Sept. 23. “So tired of the bullies taking over the schools!”

Tuition for online classes at most Georgia colleges and universities was higher than regular classes until the COVID-19 pandemic started. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Ultimately, university system officials under MacCartney have stuck to their guns on keeping masks voluntary for students and only approving online classes when professors must quarantine. To bolster their stance, state officials have highlighted a steep drop in recent COVID-19 cases as evidence that the backlash from professors like Schiffman and Hedeen may be overblown. Since a summer peak, the daily COVID-19 case count has fallen to an average 1,249 cases as of Oct. 18, according to Department of Public Health data. That’s far down from the high of nearly 7,000 average daily cases on Sept. 1.

Schools across the state have also seen a sharp drop in campus cases, including at the University of Georgia, which logged just 47 new cases – the lowest mark this semester – during the first week of October, according to the university system. Wallace, the university system spokesman, also noted that the online-class discipline policy squares with longstanding practice at Georgia colleges to discourage faculty who defy administrative orders.

“This is something institutions can already do and many already have such procedures in place,” Wallace said. “The [discipline policy] was shared as a resource for institutions to ensure consistency across the system and help those without procedures implement them.”

Outbreaks of COVID-19 cases have hit Georgia several times since the pandemic started in March 2020. (Credit: Georgia Department of Public Health)

The policy also “is not prescriptive,” but rather a form of guidance that school administrators can consult to address the relatively few professors “who are refusing to teach or who are moving their courses online without approval from their provosts,” MacCartney said in her Sept. 3 email.

“I want to highlight that some of these cases are making the news but the vast majority of our faculty are in the classrooms, doing what we have asked them to do,” MacCartney said.

Officials have also argued that students learn better in face-to-face settings with their teachers, citing research that indicates college academic performance in the U.S. dipped when classes went online during the pandemic. That argument rings true for students like Gurtej Narang, a GSU senior who said he and his peers were eager to be back on campus after taking classes online during the 2020 spring semester.

“With online classes, a lot of kids found it hard to focus,” said Narang, who is the vice chairman of the Georgia Association of College Republicans. “There’s something special about going to class.”

Even professors like Schiffman and Hedeen told State Affairs that the sudden switch to online classes in 2020 was difficult. Like students, professors value the kind of close-quarter educational experiences that only classrooms can bring, they said. But for Hedeen, COVID-19 just hasn’t lost enough steam to give Georgia professors full confidence to resume normal teaching — without the need for masks, and without the option to pull the trigger on moving online temporarily if conditions seem unsafe.

“We all want to be back in the classroom,” Hedeen said. “But there’s no more social distancing [and] classrooms are over-filled. The fact that we have no vaccine [mandate], no masks, no distancing — it’s just a farce.”

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