IN GEORGIA, the plan to get students back to school 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.
Last week, inspired by similar actions taken by Georgia Tech, faculty at Georgia Southern University released a letter asking the USG 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 over 180 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 and the USG as well as GSU President Kyle Marrero, asks to enact six protocols. One of the most crucial points of the letter is to encourage the USG 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,” says 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 623 confirmed cases as of July 12. Chatham County has recorded 2,554 cases, and Liberty County has recorded 251 cases, both as of July 13.
Just by these three data points alone, it should be clear that not every campus requires the same reopening plan. But the reopening plan applies for each campus of each school in the University System of Georgia, which counts schools across the state.
What’s more, the counties in metro Atlanta, where the USG’s office is located, count the most cases of COVID-19. A plan for those counties should be different from a plan in other areas that have not been hit as hard. This, however, is similar to what we’ve seen happen in Georgia’s COVID-19 response as a whole, with decisions being made in Atlanta that don’t quite transfer to other areas of the state.
In the letter, the Georgia Southern faculty asks the USG 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.
“What I get from the Board of Regents and the University System is that they are assuming our students are children who are unable to think for themselves. They are full-blown adults who can make choices,” says one signer of the letter who chose to remain anonymous here. “I talked to my undergrad research assistants and they are unsure. They’re not getting any communication from anyone about what’s happening. I don’t know if we’re allowing students to voice what they want.”
“Students weren’t involved at all in the opening plan,” echoes Diana Botnaru, Professor in the Health Professions. “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. But now, as always, it’s important to consider that college students are paying money for an education, so ostensibly they should have some say in the situation.
But, some faculty allege, the USG is more concerned with money than they are with safety.
“The university is very afraid of losing students who want this university experience, what college life is like, so I suspect they feel that if they go fully online, we’re going to lose students,” says the anonymous faculty member. “What I mean by losing students, in their own coded language, is that they’re losing money. Ultimately, this is about money.”
The anonymous faculty member suggests that the summer period could have been best spent training faculty on how to teach online courses, since many students were not pleased with the online mode of instruction for the spring.
Of course, 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,” says Botnaru. “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 says that faculty were asked to have syllabi ready and uploaded by Aug. 1, which at this point is just over two weeks away. That, she says, 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 says. “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,” adds Altman. “It’s not easy.”
Botnaru explains that some introductory-level classes at Georgia Southern’s Statesboro campus can be up to 250 students, which of course is not possible under current CDC guidelines. Even a classroom size of 35 now seats only 13.
So far, the USG 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,” says Altman. “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,” says Botnaru.