Despite COVID-19, University of Georgia, Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech Thirsty for In-Person Classes

Christel Deskins

As the number of coronavirus cases exploded across the University of Georgia’s Athens campus in late August, some faculty began asking department heads about shifting from in-person classes to an online curriculum.  After fielding several requests, one faculty chair emailed a dire warning to members of his department: the university […]

As the number of coronavirus cases exploded across the University of Georgia’s Athens campus in late August, some faculty began asking department heads about shifting from in-person classes to an online curriculum. 

After fielding several requests, one faculty chair emailed a dire warning to members of his department: the university would reject any official requests to switch to online learning. And if professors attempted to switch unofficially, the state university system was prepared to track them down.

“I’ve been advised that physical audits (by USG auditors) may take place that check to see that… the class is meeting the day/time/classroom that is listed in the instructional plan,” the chair wrote in an email obtained by The Daily Beast on the condition that the author not be identified. USG refers to University System of Georgia, the governing body of the state’s 26 public universities.

Objections from students taking the classes, he said, would make no difference.

“Votes or surveys of what your students in your class wish to do unfortunately will not constitute a justification for diverting from your approved instructional plan,” he wrote. “My primary intention in sharing this is to make sure none of you unknowingly stick your neck out. I don’t like this situation any more than you.”

Over the last month, as coronavirus cases have surged into the thousands across Georgia’s state universities, these colleges have doubled down on extreme tactics to keep students in the classroom, professors and students say.

“We’re being treated like children who need to be monitored,” said Shira Chess, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Georgia. 

“Everyone keeps saying it’s important for students to be on campus, but most of the students I teach don’t want to be on campus,” she told The Daily Beast. “And some faculty feel like they’re being bullied to teach in person.” 

In an emailed response to The Daily Beast, UGA included a statement in which the University System of Georgia denied that it had “hired or redirected anyone” to monitor classes. UGA went on to say that it planned to “honor our commitment to our students” by ensuring that students who had signed up for in-person classes received them.

UGA’s emphasis on in-person instruction appears to fly in the face of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for higher education. The university has recorded more than 2,500 new coronavirus infections this semester, and “when there is substantial community transmission,” the CDC suggests college administrators consider temporarily moving all classes online.

Those who disagree with this strategy have been called out personally—even when they’re students.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, called the push to keep students in the classroom amid a surge in cases “consummate selfishness.” 

If a university doesn’t establish clear guidelines and stick to them, he said, “then the whole thing will collapse. We’ll have widespread COVID on campus and then they’ll bring it home and spread it in our communities.” 

In response, UGA told The Daily Beast that the university’s “primary commitment has been to the health and safety of our faculty staff and students…. We are encouraged to see many of these students (who tested positive) are recovering and returning to normal activities.” The university also referenced its surveillance testing program, which has a goal of conducting 24,000 coronavirus tests by Thanksgiving, though combined faculty and staff on campus number well over 40,000.

The aggressive efforts to keep kids in class haven’t been confined to Athens. 

In a July 31 meeting, Carl Reiber, the provost of Georgia Southern University, said the college had ordered each department to hold at least 80 percent of its classes in person—and noted that Georgia Southern had already exceeded its target, according to notes provided to The Daily Beast by someone in attendance. (The official minutes from the meeting did not include discussion about this target.)

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