Georgia Tech won’t require students to wear masks on campus. Faculty aren’t happy

Coronavirus

“Tech Tower” at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia on March 24, 2019

(CNN) — Over 750 faculty at Georgia Tech signed a letter to the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents saying that the school’s plan to reopen campus without facemask requirements is dangerous and not based on science.

“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 letter from faculty says.

The faculty letter comes after Georgia Tech issued its “Tech Moving Forward” plans for reopening campus with in-class instruction in the fall. According to the plan, Georgia Tech students are “strongly encouraged” to wear a cloth face covering on campus but are not required to do so.

Seth Marder, a professor of chemistry, materials science and engineering at Georgia Tech, said the policy of not mandating masks is “irresponsible and puts the Georgia Tech community at significant health risk.”

Georgia is one of 31 states that have not mandated people wear masks. Wearing a face covering is one of the cheapest and simplest ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to several studies and the country’s leading health experts.

The letter is part of a wider pushback from university faculties across the country who are wary of returning to college campuses in close proximity to thousands of young people as COVID-19 continues to spread.

The recent sharp increases in confirmed coronavirus cases across the US South and West is being driven by young people who are not social distancing or avoiding social gatherings. Young people are generally less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, but they are not immune to the virus and can still spread it to older people with underlying health issues.

With a median age of 49, tenure-track faculty at universities are seven years older than the median American worker, according to research from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

Coronavirus already spiking at universities

The faculty letter at Georgia Tech asks for several changes, including a mask-wearing requirement, large-scale testing, timely contact tracing and that remote classes be the default mode of instruction.

The letter also argues that these decisions should be made by Georgia Tech’s president Ángel Cabrera rather than the statewide university system.

“(N)ot providing President Cabrera the autonomy to shape (Georgia Tech) 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,” the letter says.

Cabrera said in a statement that the school appreciates the faculty’s input.

“We are meeting with faculty regularly to plan best modes of instruction,” he said. “Faculty members are also helping flesh out other aspects of the return to campus. 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.”

Faculty at other universities have expressed similar concerns, and not without reason.

Although most campuses remain largely closed, coronavirus cases have already spiked at universities across the country, including among Clemson University’s football team and other athletics programs and at fraternities in Mississippi and in Washington.

A 21-year-old student at Penn State — which plans to allow students to return in the fall — died of respiratory failure from coronavirus complications last month, the university said.

Paul Kellerman, an English professor at Penn State University, wrote in Esquire last week that he shuddered at the thought of teaching in a room full of asymptomatic spreaders.

“And students being students will do what students have always done: congregate in packs, drink heavily, and comingle,” he wrote.

“That is the nature of college culture, with campus serving as a petri dish for the spread of the coronavirus. Teaching in such conditions is a risk many are unwilling to take, especially when the steps taken to mitigate the risk are pedagogically unsound.”

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