Georgia Tech Professors Revolt Over Reopening, Say Current Plan Threatens Lives Of Students, Staff
The majority of Georgia Tech professors, including some the university’s most acclaimed faculty members, have launched a revolt over reopening this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying the current plan “threatens the health, well-being and education of students, staff, and faculty.”
More than 800 of Tech’s 1,100 faculty members outlined their concerns to the Georgia Board of Regents in a letter titled “Statement of Academic Faculty of Georgia Tech on the COVID-19 Crisis and Fall 2020 Semester.”
“We are alarmed to see the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia mandating procedures that do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students, and staff, and interfere with nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to COVID-19 infection risk,” the professors wrote.
The letter, dated July 2, was shared with GPB News and can be read in full here.
Among those who signed were some of the university’s top researchers, including renowned physicist Walter de Heer, psychologist Randall Engle, chemist Seth Marder and atmospheric scientist Nga Lee Ng.
The Board of Regents has yet to respond to a request for comment.
The university said it appreciates and values "all input from faculty on this important process."
"We are meeting with faculty regularly to plan best modes of instruction. Faculty members are also helping flesh out other aspects of the return to campus," the university said in a written statement. "In addition, we are closely following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Governor's Coronavirus Task Force."
The faculty’s objections throw into question the mid-August plans of reopening at one of the nation’s premier public universities. It also comes at a time when the state of Georgia has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases. At Tech, nearly a dozen students living in Greek housing near campus have tested positive for coronavirus in recent weeks.
Faculty were already feeling anxious about the upcoming fall semester, GPB News was told, but a recent decision by the Board of Regents and state university system to not require students wear masks in classrooms sent faculty over the edge. Tech, like other public universities in the state, has to follow the rules mandated by the University System of Georgia.
“I want to keep working, but I also want to live," said Engle, a psychologist who has worked at the university for more than 20 years.
In a phone conversation with GPB News, Engle called the board’s mask policy “absurd.”
“To say that the faculty have to wear masks but to make it voluntary for students is a real problem,” he said. Engle turns 74 this fall: “That makes me more vulnerable in a crowded room of students where one of them might have COVID.”
“At no university where I have been,” he said, “have I ever seen the faculty take a position as unified as this one.”
Professor Ng, whose research specializes in aerosol chemistry, air quality and health effects, said the current mask policy “is not enough and puts everyone in the Georgia Tech community at risk."
“I want to re-emphasize that it is critical that face masks are made mandatory,” she said via email. “Face masks offer protection in two ways: They protect others from us, and us from others. A mask will reduce the amount of droplets that one spreads into the air, and reduce the amount of droplets that one breathes in from the surrounding air.”
In the letter, the faculty raised four points they want addressed to allow “the best way forward to ensure a safer start of the fall.”
Those four points are:
- Empower Tech President Ángel Cabrera to “act independently to safeguard the health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community, informed by scientific evidence.”
- Make online courses “the default mode of instruction for Fall 2020 in order to reduce disease transmission risk and to reduce disruption of educational delivery in the event of worsening epidemic conditions. We emphasize that no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working and/or learning on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent.”
- Make on-campus experiences “available for the limited number of students who need access to campus residences and on-campus laboratories or other specialized facilities.”
- “Make face masks required everywhere on campus, provide large-scale COVID-19 testing, and ensure timely contact tracing of new infections.”
The organizers behind the letter are allowing professors to add their names retroactively. To date, more than 800 faculty have signed on.
“We believe that decisions about how to best educate Georgia Tech students require a detailed knowledge of the challenges and constraints that are unique to Georgia Tech,” the faculty wrote. “It is for this reason we feel compelled to express in the strongest of terms that not providing President Cabrera the autonomy to shape Institute decision-making and policies in response to COVID-19 with the input of the campus community endangers our research and education missions and, most importantly, threatens the health, well-being and education of students, staff, and faculty.”
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The university last month announced its plans to reopen on Aug. 17, a phased approach the university said is a “gradual, incremental return to in-person teaching, learning and working.”
That fall plan spelled out a compressed semester with classes ending at Thanksgiving and detailed five modes of instruction, including remote courses and a hybrid hands-on approach. The university also outlined an array of safety measures, from social distancing in classrooms to reconfigured dorms to try to limit the spread of coronavirus.
“Our goal is to bring our campus community back together and move forward safely, responsibly, and compassionately in pursuit of our important educational and research work while prioritizing everyone’s health and safety,” the university said at the time.
Georgia Tech has a total student population of more than 36,000, including about 20,000 graduate students.