Educators at the University of Georgia have announced plans to require masks in their classrooms despite their state university system not mandating mask-wearing, and say they face potential punishment for following through.
More than 50 UGA life science faculty members this week sent a letter to university administrators, stating their actions are needed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.
“We are deeply devoted to the education and well-being of all members of the University community and feel obligated to protect our students and fellow employees from the unnecessary dangers associated with inappropriate public health planning and messages,” the faculty members wrote.
“In order to protect our students, staff and faculty colleagues, we will wear masks and will require all of our students and staff to wear masks in our classes and laboratories until local community transmission rates improve,” the letter said.
The participating faculty members plan to take the mask requirement actions in early October, according to UGA genetics professor Jeff Bennetzen, giving the parent University System of Georgia (USG) a chance to reconsider its policies. The system, which is comprised of 26 public colleges and universities, urges masks and vaccinations but does not require such measures to attend class.
“Scientists are trained to discover and follow the facts, so I believe that we cannot maintain our integrity or our credibility if we stand by silently while bad public health policies are damaging the UGA community,” Bennetzen told CNN.
The university has not mentioned the possibility of any punitive action, Bennetzen said, and university president Jere Morehead and Provost Dr. S. Jack Hu both thanked the facility members for their input.
UGA is “committed to doing everything within our power to protect the health, safety and wellbeing of our community,” university spokesperson Greg Trevor said in a statement to CNN.
Trevor pointed out that UGA must follow the directives of the USG Board of Regents, which does not allow its institutions to enact mask or vaccine mandates.
“We will continue to strongly encourage vaccinations and the wearing of masks inside our facilities. Pursuant to USG directives, neither the university nor individual faculty or staff can mandate face coverings in campus facilities, including classrooms,” Trevor said.
USG said on Wednesday in response to the faculty members’ letter that “institutions have existing tools to address situations that involve disregarding USG guidance.”
As a state entity, the university system is prohibited from the use of a “vaccine passport system,” according to USG, and said the rate of positive tests for Covid-19 at UGA is falling.
“USG remains committed to keeping all our campus communities healthy and safe. This is a responsibility we take very seriously,” the statement said. “We urge vaccination for everyone and strongly encourage everyone to wear a mask or face covering while inside campus facilities.”
The state of Georgia has no mask mandate. Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order barring local governments from enforcing mask mandates regarding businesses, but local school districts have been allowed to decide whether to require masks.
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