Georgia students head to college amid COVID-19 surge

UGA tour

College students across Georgia are saying goodbye to mom and dad, hauling furniture up to their dorm rooms and making last-minute changes to their class schedules. 

A new semester started Monday at Dalton State College and Georgia Gwinnett College, and the rest of the University System of Georgia’s 26 institutions will be heading back to class in the coming days and weeks.

At the University of Georgia, flocks of bright-eyed freshmen have been touring the campus to get the lay of the land before classes begin Aug. 18. 

Rising freshman Phillip Kelley said he’s looking forward to life in the dorms. He’s also looking forward to life without mandatory masks.

“I don’t like wearing masks every day of school. It feels weird,” said Kelley, a biology major. “I did that all throughout high school, so I like being able to not have to do that.”

The University System of Georgia is recommending masks and vaccines but not requiring them, a policy that has sparked concern among some students and campus employees as the more contagious delta variant causes case numbers to rise and hospital beds to fill. On Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health’s hospital diversion dashboard reported the emergency department at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center as on total diversion, meaning it could not accept emergency medical service patients.

“It’s cool that it’s an option but it’s not mandatory,” said Kelley’s friend, rising freshman computer science major Eric Hightower. “And plus, I’m vaccinated, so if you’re vaccinated, it’s not really an issue.”

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance recommending fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission — categories that now describe all of Georgia’s 159 counties.

Not everyone has embraced the new order.

“I think it’s up to whoever wants to wear masks, you know?” said UGA landscape architecture major Will Miller as he waited for a ride near the dining hall. “We’re at the point in the pandemic where if you’re vaccinated, then I don’t know what CDC says, but yeah, I mean, it’s a personal choice, in my opinion. I mean, maybe I’m different than everyone else, but that’s how I am.”

Miller, a freshman who has been taking summer classes, said he has not seen many masked faces on campus.

“My professors wear them, but other than that, that’s about it,” he said. “Students aren’t required to right now, so I’m not wearing one as of right now.”

That could change if things get much worse, he added.

“As of right now, they’re not really enforced yet, but once they do, then, yeah, I’ll comply. I just kind of go with the flow,” he said.

Miller might wear a mask if someone told him he had to, but that someone will likely not be Gov. Brian Kemp.

While health experts agree masks are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19, Kemp has fought back against mandating masks or shots and attacked local mayors of cities that have imposed mask orders.

“The biggest obstacle to getting more people vaccinated and the country returning to normal is the mixed messages from Washington D.C. and those with partisan agendas. In Georgia, we have been consistent,” Gov. Brian Kemp tweeted after the CDC’s announcement.

“Georgians know the risks and they know these safe, effective vaccines are our greatest tool to defeat COVID-19,” he added. 

Georgia’s vaccination rate is 41% compared with just over 50% for the nation

Not far away from where Miller awaited his ride, a group of freshmen international students laughed and chatted as they toured the campus, each of them wearing masks over their faces.

The new friends said they’ll be masking up when their classes start because they’re worried about new variants and because they want to keep others safe.

“Many people are vaccinated, but a lot of them are not vaccinated, and some have very weak immunity,” said Akshatt Dangayseh, who will be studying at the Terry College of Business. “So as a citizen, or as a human, we have a social responsibility to wear masks so that we do not spread the virus to those weaker people who have less immunity to this virus, because they can get really affected by it. You might not get affected, but you should think about other people who are living in the society as well.”

Judging by the signs posted around campus urging unvaccinated people to mask up, UGA leaders are hoping more students will agree with Dangayseh. 

But some are calling on the school system to do more than strongly encourage mask usage.

Members of the United Campus Workers of Georgia say they plan to host a rally outside of the state Board of Regents’ offices in downtown Atlanta Tuesday morning as the officials are set to meet. 

The union representing faculty, staff and graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants is calling on the university system to institute a vaccine and mask mandate as well as increased reporting and protective measures.

“As centers of research and learning, Georgia colleges and universities bear a responsibility to take the lead in educating and protecting the public— beginning with our own campuses,” co-President Jill Penn said in a statement. “Instead, the opposite has been happening: the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia has ordered a full return to normal operations. Interestingly, the Board of Regents policy contradicts with the covid safety policies many of the regents have implemented at their own workplaces. The BOR must reconsider its guidance in light of changing circumstances.”

According to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 675 public and private college campuses around the country are requiring students or employees to be vaccinated, including seven in Georgia, all private schools located near Atlanta.

Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson, a senior at Columbus State University and editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the Saber, said faculty has been reaching out about problems they see with COVID-19 policy for the coming semester.

“I’ve already had several professors reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, Jessica, I’m kind of worried about this. I think it would be a good idea if you write about it,’ you know, see how people feel about it,” she said.

DeMarco-Jacobson said she and many of her classmates plan to be cautious about the virus, but she can commiserate with students who are tired of restrictions.

“I think people are definitely getting restless. I know I am,” she said. “It’s hard to keep staying inside and all that when you’ve already been inside for almost a year and a half.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo: A tour guide takes new students and their parents on a tour of the University of Georgia this month in front of Sanford Stadium. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

2 Comments

  • Bridget Moyer -

    One important issue not covered here is that the University of Georgia system (our experience is with KSU) is not requiring vaccine status info to be made available or utilized in student housing decisions. We have just found out that our freshman, who spent the last year following CDC protocols, is vaccinated, and has asthma, will be rooming with a young man who is not vaccinated. How do you keep yourself safe from Covid Delta or other variants in this situation? I understand the right of students to choose not to get vaccinated- but shouldn’t this be taken into account when deciding who rooms with whom?

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