Georgia College Officials, Professors Battle over Online Classes

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

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.

James Schiffman doesn’t regret moving one of his classes online this semester, despite the trouble he now finds himself in with his school’s administration.

Schiffman, who teaches communications at Georgia College and State University, said he moved one of his larger classes online to start the semester since it was difficult to social distance and his college — like all others in Georgia — prohibited him from requiring his students to wear masks. Within weeks, was summoned to his dean’s office and given a choice: move the class back in-person, or face discipline.

“First [the dean] tried to bargain with me,” Schiffman said of the Sept. 22 meeting. “Then he tried to threaten me. Then he tried to shame me.”

Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville is one of the state's 26 public colleges and universities. (Credit: Georgia College and State University)

The encounter highlights a battle brewing on Georgia college campuses between professors who feel unsafe teaching classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and school officials who have blocked them from either mandating masks in their classrooms or moving their courses to socially distanced online formats.

Already, some educators like Schiffman have run afoul of a new discipline policy that carries stiff penalties — including suspension, pay cuts and firing — for defying administrators’ orders to keep classes in-person for the more-than 300,000 students at Georgia public colleges. Some professors have resigned or been fired over the mask and online-class rules.

The clash comes as state officials with the 26-school University System of Georgia say it’s time for students to get the normal college experience that they’re paying for this semester, especially since COVID-19 cases have fallen in recent weeks and vaccines are now widely available in Georgia.

“[Schools] have worked diligently to make campuses safe for in-person instruction,” said Lance Wallace, a spokesman for the university system. “The priority is delivering instruction to students in the mode for which they registered.”

On the front lines of classrooms, however, some professors feel the online crackdown sends a message that the $8 billion university system may not have student and faculty safety top of mind this semester — particularly since professors have no way to require masks in their classrooms aside from outright rebellion.

“I’m honestly as disillusioned as I’ve ever been,” said Timothy Hedeen, a Kennesaw State University conflict-management professor. “I don’t like the term ‘death cult,’ but it sure feels like one.”

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)

Discipline Policy Takes Shape

Schiffman is among a handful of Georgia professors who have sought to move their classes online this semester, going against orders not to do so. Some of those professors have resigned recently or been fired.

In August, a professor at Georgia State University’s (GSU) Perimeter College was fired for refusing to teach her classes without masks and offering to move the classes online, according to news reports. Another GSU professor filed a complaint earlier this month after school officials denied his request to teach online, despite providing a doctor’s note that said he has a heart condition putting his health at risk if he were to contract COVID-19, according to news reports.

Schiffman worries he may be heading down the same road as those professors – though he remains dead-set on keeping one of his larger classes online, even if it costs him his job.

“For the greater good of my students, I’m keeping that class online,” Schiffman said in a recent interview. “Period.”

Officials at Schiffman’s college did not respond to State Affairs’ requests for an interview or comment on his situation and the discipline policy.

The University System of Georgia oversees the state's 26 public colleges and universities. (Credit: University System of Georgia)

Schiffman is now tangling with a discipline policy drawn up early last month that outlines initial written warnings for unapproved online classes, followed by harsher penalties such as suspension, unpaid leave or termination for continued disobedience. He received a warning letter shortly after his Sept. 22 meeting with the dean, marking the first step in the discipline policy that was drafted by several top school officials and sent to all 26 colleges by USG Vice Chancellor Tristan Denley, according to emails that State Affairs obtained in an open-records request.

The policy took shape at a time when case counts were still steep due to COVID-19’s highly infectious Delta variant, state data shows. When top school officials held a virtual meeting with Denley on Sept. 2 to discuss the policy, according to emails, Georgia was averaging around 6,700 new cases per day. One official at Kennesaw State – which had the third-highest enrollment of all schools in spring 2021 with about 38,500 students – said in a Sept. 2 email to Denley that the school’s COVID-19 cases “continue to rise exponentially” and “several faculty are sick or quarantined.” 

Hedeen, who has criticized the discipline policy, said the university system has brought a heavy-handed approach to dealing with faculty concerns over masks and online classes that threatens to crush rank-and-file morale and scare off good professor candidates from seeking future posts at Georgia colleges.

“This is going to be a bizarre game of chicken,” Hedeen said in a recent interview. “It’s basically politics at the state level and personal safety at the local level.”

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)

Getting Back to Normal

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!”

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.

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

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.”

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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