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Georgia Tech professors angry with loose mask rules; now they're required across university system

More than 850 professors signed a letter demanding the school revise its mask use policy for the upcoming semester.

ATLANTA — More than 855 of the 1,100-plus faculty members at Georgia Tech have signed a letter expressing their collective outrage that the university has decided not to make mask use on the midtown Atlanta campus mandatory for the upcoming fall semester.

Now, it appears the entire university system will be requiring them by mid-July.

Georgia Tech has already indicated that the school plans to reopen for the fall semester on August 17. According to Georgia Tech's Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Dr. Colin Potts, the university was not planning to offer all of its classes as remote-only.

"In fact, even the remote classes will probably involve some degree of in-person interaction during the semester," Potts said. "We want students to understand that we are not moving online as an option, but some courses will be offered in this mode."

However, Georgia Tech did not plan to mandate mask use on campus once the university reopens.

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In June, when university leaders initially presented their proposed plan for the fall semester, civil engineer Rafael L. Bras said it was not appropriate to get into a confrontation in the classroom and to bring the situation to the dean of students. The school website says he serves as the provost and executive vice president of Academic Affairs at Georgia Tech. He is also a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.  

"The issue of wearing face coverings in the classroom is indeed a complicated one. We have all indications that it would be beneficial to wear one," Bras said at the time. "The best way to deal with someone who does not want to wear a face-covering is to bring it to the attention of the dean of students, John Stein. Do not get into a classroom confrontation."

The letter from the faculty members cited four major points that they said will ensure the best way forward for a safe environment for the fall semester:

1. Empower the President of Georgia Tech to act independently to safeguard the health and safety needs of the Georgia Tech community, informed by scientific evidence.

2. Make remote delivery 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.

3. 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.

4. Make face masks required everywhere on campus, provide large-scale COVID-19 testing, and ensure timely contact tracing of new infections.

The faculty said they believe the decisions about how to best move forward require full knowledge of the challenges and issues tied to Georgia Tech. They said there should be a priority on remote instruction over in-person meetings in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection for students and staff.

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They said they are putting this forward now in hopes that the university can prepare for a safer opening by crafting a clear but revised Fall semester opening plan as soon as possible. This would allow students time to make appropriate travel and housing arrangements.

In addition, faculty members said they would be able to make informed decisions about the best way to deliver their courses for the fall semester in a fashion that will reduce the risk of infection and safeguard the university's mission. 

By Monday evening, however, the University System of Georgia had released an updated plan that would require faculty, staff, students, and visitors to wear masks while inside buildings - at least where social distancing is not an option.

This excludes areas like included offices, dorms, and study rooms. For those who can't wear a mask, the university system is requiring documentation for a health care worker to prove that a mask truly can't be worn. 

It's not clear in the university system's documentation what conditions might make wearing a mask detrimental.

Otherwise, the offender will be told to wear a mask, leave the campus or possibly be disciplined for repeat offenses.

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