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A majority of Georgia Tech professors launched a revolt over the school’s plan to open this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. Ellen Eldridge has more about the faculty’s concerns.

Faculty at Georgia Tech are speaking out about safety concerns with in-person classes and surging coronavirus cases.
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Faculty at Georgia Tech are speaking out about safety concerns with in-person classes and surging coronavirus cases.

As the state of Georgia continues to see coronavirus cases rising at an alarming rate, Georgia Tech professors are continuing to speak out against the current reopening plans, saying their health and students' health must be the top priority. 

Dr. Alexandra Edwards, who teaches in Georgia Tech’s School of Literature, Media and Communication, said one of her colleagues drafted the statement signed by more than 800 of the university’s 1,100 faculty members.

One key objection was a recent decision by the state Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia not to require students wear masks in classrooms. Tech, like other public universities across Georgia, has to follow the rules mandated by the state system.

"It seems like a really half-assed effort to say that employees are going to be required to be masked in public spaces, then to just say, 'Well, we'll just have to leave it up to the students themselves what they want to do," Edwards said.

MORE: Georgia Tech Professors Revolt Over Reopening, Say Current Plan Threatens Lives Of Students, Staff

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.

Of the four demands, the least of which should be a masking requirement for all staff and students, Edwards said.

Dr. Marc Weissburg, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences who has taught at Tech for 20 years, said the science supports wearing masks.

"I think given the fact that we know about how the virus spreads and what is safe versus risky behavior, that to not wear a mask is to display a complete lack of empathy and concern for the people around you," Weissburg said. "I wear a mask so that if I happen to be infected and don't know it, then I am protecting those people around me."

Making distance learning the default protects faculty and students, especially those who — like Edwards — use public transportation to get to campus.

"My position has always been that I don't want to teach on campus in the fall because I don't think it's safe for myself. But, more importantly, I don't think it's safe for my students," she said. "I don't think it's safe for our staff. I don't think it's safe for our communities and our families."

Weissburg said he is disappointed in political leaders, including Gov. Brian Kemp, who he said doesn't seem to show he understands the severity of the situation.

"If this coincides with the flu season, then it's going to be 10 to 100 times worse than it is right now," Weissburg said. "And a lot of people will die."

The university last month announced its plan to reopen Aug. 17, with a condensed semester ending at Thanksgiving.

Asked about the concerns raised by Tech's professors, the university said it is continuing to meet regularly with faculty about “best modes of instruction.”

“Faculty members are also helping flesh out other aspects of the return to campus," the university said. "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."