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In March, as the Covid-19 pandemic exploded globally, the Georgia Institute of Technology ordered an immediate campus shutdown. Classes switched to online instruction. Students moved out of their dorms.

But the University System of Georgia objected. The state wanted Georgia Tech to suspend in-person classes for only two weeks, delaying a final decision on the rest of the semester.

Amid the pandemic, the stakes have grown higher, because university decisions now have life-or-death consequences.

The university’s president, Ángel Cabrera, backed down.

In a tweet posted on Friday, March 13, the night before spring break began, Cabrera wrote that “further assessment” was needed before deciding whether the campus would indeed stay closed.

“My apologies for the confusion caused by my earlier statements,” he wrote.

The abrupt about-face stunned both students and faculty.

“We had kids on planes to China,” said Alexandra Edwards, a postdoc fellow at Georgia Tech. “They landed, opened their email and saw that maybe they were not supposed to go home, because maybe school was going to keep going.”

That day’s chaos and confusion is a microcosm of a larger power struggle in Georgia. The state’s higher-education system, with a Board of Regents appointed by its Republican governor, is noticeably hands-on in making decisions that affect its 26 institutions.

Sometimes, those decisions have political implications, such as a decade ago when the board banned undocumented immigrants from attending several of the state’s most-prestigious universities, including the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Other times, the state gets involved in smaller matters.

When the historically black Albany State University tried to hire a new captain for its police force this month, it first had to gain the state’s approval, records show.

At Georgia College, the public liberal-arts institution, a curriculum redesign was ordered up by the state last year, according to Sam Sommers, a former lecturer who taught literature classes there.

“It seemed completely, to my mind, unheard of,” she said. “Because the Regents are not a board of educators.”

Independence at Risk

Critics fear that Georgia colleges are losing their independence, which potentially weakens the voice of faculty as well. And in the Covid-19 era, the stakes have grown higher, because university decisions now have life-or-death consequences.

Battle lines are being drawn.

The biggest skirmish so far: Georgia will make it optional to wear masks at its public colleges this fall, even though face coverings are widely recognized as one of the best ways to limit the spread of coronavirus.

President Trump has made masks a political issue through his continued refusal to wear one in public. And Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, is a strong supporter of the president.

This month when a University of North Georgia professor pleaded with the university system to require masks, Steve Wrigley, the system chancellor, wrote in response: “The state does not require the wearing of a mask. Neither does the federal government.”

University System of Georgia

Steve Wrigley, chancellor of the University System of Georgia

The state system has not responded to questions from The Chronicle. The newspaper submitted written questions three times, and asked about the mask issue as well as more-general questions about how power is shared in Georgia.

The lack of a state mask requirement does not necessarily dictate what colleges can do. Georgia’s neighbor to the south, Florida, similarly lacks a statewide requirement.

But many of its universities will require masks. Florida is letting its colleges independently decide how to proceed.

Across the country, in fact, most colleges will have a mask mandate.

“The masks are priority No. 1,” said Peter Gulick, an associate professor of medicine at Michigan State University. Gulick said that masks, in addition to reducing viral spread, also remind the public to continue practicing social distancing. When the masks come off, he said, folks tend to congregate more closely.

“The mask is not only a thing to protect you,” Gulick said. “It’s a warning that, Hey, Covid is still out there.”

Not having masks, Gulick said, “really puts everybody at risk.”

Cabrera, Georgia Tech’s president, recently fielded questions about masks at a virtual town hall. He did not defend the mask-optional policy, and instead said that Georgia Tech is “following guidance from the system and the state.”

The University of West Georgia initially sought to make masks mandatory. A computer screenshot from the university’s website shows that the reopening plan once included “the requirement to wear face coverings in non-private spaces.”

That sentence has since been deleted.

“We can’t mandate that students wear face coverings. This is a System Office stance that we must adhere to.”

Records show that Albany State’s reopening plan also initially included a “mandatory order for all to wear masks inside a building.”

That’s not the case anymore.

“System Office has been clear when we inquire about this,” wrote Albany State’s provost, Angela Peters, in a June 22 email to three other administrators. “We can’t mandate that students wear face coverings. This is a System Office stance that we must adhere to.”

An Albany State biology professor fired off an angry email about the mask policy.

“Does that mean I can’t enforce students wearing clothes that are appropriate (as in not naked or nearly so)?” wrote professor Richard Foreman in a June 18 email to the associate provost. “That I can’t mandate lab safety rules? (Because this is much more of a real life and death safety issue than many of the lab or other classroom rules/regulations.) That I can’t prevent students from eating 5 course meals during class? Playing loud music? Using their phones? Etc.? Disrupting us now is not allowed — but killing us later is fine.”

Georgia’s position on masks has prompted multiple public petitions, with thousands of signatures. The petitions demand that the chancellor and Board of Regents change course.

“My daughter is a student at UGA and I’m concerned for her safety,” wrote one petition-signer. “She has an autoimmune disease and may be more at-risk for health complications if she catches the virus.”

State lawmakers, too, are outraged. More than 20 Georgia lawmakers have signed a letter asking the university system to require masks. The letter was written by State Rep. Jasmine Clark, an Atlanta-area Democrat who received her Ph.D. in microbiology from Emory University.

“With classes scheduled to begin in just over 45 days, and as the number of cases of coronavirus in our state trend upward once again, we are hopeful that you will prioritize safety in all decisions being made for the Fall 2020 semester,” Clark wrote.

‘They Broke Their Own Rules’

The Georgia university system’s own internal policy manual contains specific requirements to protect the health of its students and employees.

Section 7.11.2, for example, states that minimizing risk within the University System of Georgia is “fundamentally a leadership responsibility,” and the system shall not create “willful exposure of students, employees, or others to unsafe environments or activities.” The policy manual’s Code of Conduct (section 8.2.18.1.4) states that the system will “protect human health and safety and the environment in all USG operations and activities.”

“They broke their own rules,” said Adia Aidoo, 21, a University of Georgia public-relations and sociology major.

“The fact that the Board of Regents doesn’t recognize that wearing a mask is basic human decency, and treats it more as a political issue than an issue of basic humanity, that’s just beyond me,” said Aidoo, who is also a co-chair of the black caucus of the College Democrats of America.

“There are innocent people who will die from this,” Aidoo said.

While face masks are the most-controversial part of Georgia’s college-reopening plan, there is a plethora of other details associated with resuming in-person classes. The reopening plan for the University of North Georgia, for example, is 116 pages long, according to a draft version of the document obtained by The Chronicle through a public-records request.

Records show that North Georgia’s plan was thoroughly reviewed by administrators in the state system, with dozens of comments (including some suggested edits) sent back to the university. For example, the state flagged one sentence about how employees working in their own office, with the door closed, aren’t required to wear a mask.

“Using the word ‘required’ here infers that outside of the closed office space, it is required,” wrote Stuart Rayfield, the state’s vice chancellor for leadership and institutional development. “Could the wording be changed to ‘expected?’”

Reopening a college campus during a pandemic is inherently risky, and even the widespread use of masks doesn’t erase all of that risk. For employees with certain medical conditions, returning to in-person classroom instruction is potentially dangerous.

When an employee asked to work remotely, Georgia Tech initially required only a doctor’s note that supported the request, records show.

Then the state of Georgia stepped in.

The state has since created a narrow list of medical conditions — such as diabetes, heart disease, and chronic lung disease — that would justify an employee’s request for an accommodation to work from home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes a more-extensive list of affected medical conditions. For example, the CDC lists some conditions, such as pregnancy or high blood pressure, where individuals “might” be more at risk if they are infected with Covid-19.

Because Georgia is using narrower criteria to approve remote work requests, it is possible that some employees with significant medical risk will be required to work on campus anyway.

Georgia also says that employees who live with a high-risk individual must report to work in person — even though the Americans with Disabilities Act provides some legal protections to such individuals.

Edwards, the Georgia Tech postdoc who witnessed her university’s disruptive March closure, is now uncertain whether she will be permitted to teach online. She said she has an ADA- recognized disability that is not on the state’s list of qualifying conditions.

Until recently, she’d been told that all she would need is a doctor’s note to teach online, and she was in the process of obtaining it.

Now, she said, the university “pulled the rug out from under me.”

Edwards said her fellow postdocs are coping with their own uncertainties. One colleague, she said, is pregnant.

“She is three weeks away from giving birth and has been told since May that she would be teaching online,” Edwards said. “That the health of her baby was the most important thing. And now she’s being told, Well, we don’t think they’ll pull your accommodation, but we don’t know.”

With so much still unsettled, the calendar continues to creep toward fall.

Classes at Georgia Tech begin on August 17.

Michael Vasquez is a senior investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MrMikeVasquez, or email him at michael.vasquez@chronicle.com.



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