Masks or no masks? Georgia colleges grapple with return to normal

Man student in grey t-shirt sitting in face mask in empty university classroom

Associate Professor Lydia Ray learned about Columbus State University’s plan for returning to campus in a one-on-one meeting with the university’s president. He told her what she didn’t expect to hear: that both unvaccinated individuals and vaccinated individuals could return to campus without having to wear masks in the classrooms, and there would most likely be no vaccine mandate.

“That was a moment of frustration for me,” Ray said. 

For her, this announcement hit close to home. Her son is ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine because of his age, and she doesn’t want to unknowingly infect him.  

Yet with the state — and country — resuming some semblance of normalcy following months of lockdowns, social distancing and mask mandates, others believe that a vaccine mandate would go too far.

Robert Boyd, a junior at the University of Georgia, doesn’t believe a vaccine mandate is a good option for students. He trusts the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated individuals don’t need to wear masks, but he said he would feel safer if people would wear masks inside of classrooms.

“I don’t feel like anybody should be able to tell anyone what to do with their body,” Boyd said. “But I think you should be respectful of other people and, if you aren’t vaccinated, you should wear a mask in public.”

These conversations come as universities across the state prepare to welcome thousands of students back to campus in the fall. After a year of Zoom lectures and hybrid schedules, some Georgia universities are planning for back-to-normal operations.

The fall return confronts students with questions over how to approach the year: Do I wear a mask? Why should I? And what are my university’s rules about vaccinations?

Normal operations also mean busier classrooms. Some professors will teach in front of a packed class, not knowing who is vaccinated and who isn’t, where COVID-19 could spread between unvaccinated individuals.

“I teach 300 people in a room where you don’t have a foot between you and the next person,” said Dr. Janet Frick, a psychology professor at the University of Georgia who supports a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

Frick recently began teaching an in-person summer course in Athens, and she said that approximately less than 10% of her students are wearing masks.

Frick does believe a return to full in-person instruction “makes sense” as long as the community numbers of COVID-19 infections remain low. She supports a vaccine mandate out of concern for the safety of her students — and for the greater Athens community. 

“I think the safety level both on campus and in the Athens community would be much better if there were a vaccine mandate, just like we have for dozens of other vaccines,” Frick said.

Relying on an honor system

In May, the University System of Georgia, the governing body of the state’s 26 institutions of higher learning, updated its guidance on masks so that “fully vaccinated individuals can resume campus classes and other activities without wearing a mask. Unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to continue wearing a face covering while inside campus buildings.”

It also issued a statement which “strongly encourages vaccines,” but does not mandate them.

“While the [COVID-19] vaccines are safe and effective, it is an individual decision to receive one and will not be required to be a part of our campuses,” the USG said in a statement on its website. 

In other words, it’s basically an honor system. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals can choose to wear or forgo a mask based on their preference.

The decision strays from how several private universities in the state plan to handle pandemic precautions in the fall. Emory University will require all students to be immunized for COVID-19, “with exemptions for those with medical conditions or strong personal objections.” Agnes-Scott College will require all students, faculty, and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they have a documented medical or religious exemption. Morehouse College and Spelman College are also requiring vaccination for members of the university community.

The nation’s largest university system, in California, also plans to mandate vaccines for all personnel, from students to staff, if they want to return to campus.  

Ray, the associate professor at Columbus State, had hoped that the USG might make the same call. When she read the USG’s general policy on immunization, she wondered what was preventing them from requiring COVID-19 vaccines. 

That policy allows for vaccine mandates during an epidemic, though the Board of Regents has not mandated vaccination against COVID-19 so far.

“When I read that policy, I was surprised,” Ray said. “The USG [policy] explicitly allows for immunization requirements if there is an epidemic. And this is not even an epidemic; this is a pandemic.”

Gov. Brian Kemp’s May 25 executive order may explain the USG’s hesitancy to mandate vaccines. The “Prohibition of COVID-19 Vaccine Passports” prohibits state agencies and properties from requiring vaccine passports, and prohibits state employers from having different rules for employees based on vaccination status. 

Although the order doesn’t explicitly address university vaccination policies, it makes the governor’s stance on vaccine mandates known. 

“Today’s executive order makes clear that vaccine passports will not be utilized in the state government,” Kemp told reporters. 

‘No other option’

While vaccinated people have protection against the virus that causes COVID-19, they still may be able to spread the virus to others, even if they do not have symptoms, according to the CDC. Unvaccinated people can still spread the virus to others, and without a mask requirement, some unvaccinated individuals may stop wearing masks indoors. 

UGA student Hunter Street is excited for a full return to campus. An in-person learning environment with the ability to have conversations with professors and peers before and after class allows for better learning, he said, compared to clicking the red “end” button on a Zoom call when class ends. 

Although Boyd is excited for an in-person return to campus, busy lecture halls and classrooms will be an adjustment for him and for other students. 

“It’s a lot of people coming in and out, different groups of classes leaving behind their germs,” Boyd said.

Neither Street or Boyd are vaccinated yet, although Boyd plans on receiving the vaccine in the near future. Boyd currently plans on wearing a mask in the fall, and Street said that whether or not he wears a mask in class will depend on whether social distancing is possible. 

Still, faculty members such as Ray are worried about exposing their family members who may be ineligible to receive a vaccine. She said the thought of potentially spreading it to her child is worrisome.

“In a classroom full of students, I won’t know who is vaccinated and who is not,” Ray said. “That will impact my ability to feel free to teach in a classroom face-to-face, and it will impact my morale as a faculty member.”

Both Ray and Frick are some of the over 3,200 USG stakeholders who signed a petition requesting that the USG require its institutions to add COVID-19 vaccinations to its lists of required immunizations for students. 

The petition, organized by the Georgia Tech Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, was presented to the Chancellor and the Board of Regents on June 3.

Last summer, the USG reversed its initial decision to forgo mask requirements on campuses. Because of that reversal, Ray is hopeful that the governing body could change its current policy on vaccines.  

Frick, however, is not as optimistic. 

“Ultimately, the political reality in Georgia is that the chances of there actually being a vaccine mandate are slim to none,” she said.

As she waits for the USG to change its policy, Ray and faculty members at Columbus State plan to hold a meeting with members of the Student Government Association to discuss their opinions and perspectives on the vaccine mandate. And if fall comes with no vaccine mandate, Ray said she will have to trust that she will be able to keep herself, and her child, safe. 

“I will have no option other than to go into the classroom with good faith that I will be safe,” Ray said. “And I have to take that risk.”

This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GA Today, a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.

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