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University System of GA chancellor responds after over 50 faculty members require masks in classrooms

54 people in the university's faculty say they are requiring masks inside their classrooms until COVID transmission rates improve.

ATHENS, Ga. — The chancellor of the University System of Georgia is now responding after over 50 faculty members said they are requiring masks.

Fifty-four people in the University of Georgia's faculty are requiring masks inside their classrooms until COVID transmission rates improve, and say they are aware of the possible consequences that follow their decision. 

In a Sept. 20 letter, UGA Professor Jeffrey Bennetzen wrote the following on behalf of faculty members:

"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, despite the ban on mask mandates and the USG policy to punish, and potentially fire, any faculty taking this action."

Teresa MacCartney, chancellor of the University System of Georgia, responded on Wednesday. 

"Due to this decline in transmission, your intent to disregard USG policy and require masks 'until local transmission rates improve' is not necessary," she said in a statement. 

The move goes against the University System of Georgia's guidance, which encourages masks but does not mandate them.

Right now, UGA's voluntary surveillance testing data suggests COVID-19 cases on campus are declining. Just last week, only eight tests came back positive for a rate of about 0.7%.

That rate has been dropping since the start of September. 

Here is the full statement from MacCartney: 

Thank you for your recent communication regarding the COVID-19 protocols for the University System of Georgia (USG) and its institutions. We have never faced such complex and complicated challenges but our campuses have risen to the challenge to live our mission of educating our students. We must fulfill that mission, because it directly affects students’ ability to attain their degree and improve their quality of life. Research has shown us that while what we have done over the past 18 months worked to some extent, our students have not performed as well as when they are in the classroom and able to engage with their faculty in person. It is for this reason the Board of Regents made it a priority that we return to the classroom.

In your letter of September 20, 2021, you state:

  • 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, despite the ban on mask mandates and the USG policy to punish, and potentially fire, any faculty taking this action.

The good news on University of Georgia’s campus as well as on USG campuses throughout our state is that COVID-19 cases are declining. Specifically at UGA this week, there were 77 new cases reported, which is a sharp decline over previous weeks. Additionally, the surveillance testing is at its lowest rate since UGA began surveillance testing last year with only 8 of 1,167 tests coming back positive for a positive rate of 0.67%. Due to this decline in transmission, your intent to disregard USG policy and require masks “until local transmission rates improve” is not necessary.

Otherwise, Georgia has no state mask mandate. As a system, we strongly encourage mask usage in campus facilities and urge those who want to wear masks to do so.

Regarding vaccine mandates, Governor Kemp issued an Executive Order (EO) on May 25, 2021, that prohibits the use of a vaccine passport system for state entities. As you know, we are a state entity. The EO reads, in part:

  • That no state agency, provider of state services, or state property shall implement a Vaccine Passport Program or otherwise require an individual to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination as a condition to enter the premises of or conduct business with a state agency, receive state services, enter upon state property, be employed by the State, or enjoy any other rights or privileges provided by the State.

We know the single most effective way to keep from getting and spreading the virus that causes COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, and the system has committed to making the vaccines as accessible as possible to everyone. A majority of institutions offer vaccine incentives, as does the system for employees enrolled in a USG healthcare plan. Paid administrative leave is also available to give employees time to get their shots, and as a thank you to those who are already vaccinated. This effort is critical, and I am asking for everyone’s help as we focus on vaccinations to protect our communities.

We continue to be in contact with the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health (DPH) and her staff. DPH and USG are working together with campuses to ensure access to testing, PPE and vaccines.

Thank you again for your work and for reaching out to me with your concerns.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify Teresa MacCartney's title with the University System of Georgia.