Matthew Boedy, associate professor of rhetoric and composition, made a raw emotional appeal to his students at the University of North Georgia just before classes began: The Covid-19 Delta variant swept across the state, filling hospital beds. He would teach the equivalent of full body armor – vaccinated and masked.
So he was stunned in late August when more than two-thirds of the freshmen in his writing class didn’t get the hint and turned up unmasked.
It was impossible to tell who had been vaccinated and who had not. “It’s not a visual hellscape, like hospitals, it’s more of an emotional hellscape,” said Dr. Buddy.
North Georgia is not demanding that its students be vaccinated or masked this fall. And with face-to-face classes returning at nearly every university in the country, many professors find teaching a nerve-wracking experience after nearly a year and a half of emergency relief centered around online learning.
The American College Health Association recommends vaccination requirements for all higher education students on campus for the fall semester. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings, regardless of vaccine status, for indoor public areas in areas where the infection rate is high.
But it hasn’t turned out that way on more than a few campuses.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 1,000 colleges and universities have passed vaccination requirements for at least some students and staff. To show how political vaccination has become, schools are usually clustered in states that voted for President Biden in the last election.
But on some campuses, especially Republican-led states with high rates of infection — such as the state systems in Georgia, Texas and Florida — vaccination is optional and mask wearing, while recommended, cannot be enforced. Professors are told they can tell students they are “highly encouraged” or “expected” to put on masks, but cannot force students to do so. And teachers can’t ask students with COVID-like symptoms to leave the classroom.
At least nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Tennessee — have banned or restricted the mandate of school masks. It’s unclear, education officials say, whether all of these bans apply to universities, but public universities depend on government funding.
Sure, some professors like to go maskless. a few words have resigned in protest of optional mask policy. Most, like Dr. Buddy, keep fighting. But the level of fear is so high that even at universities that require vaccination and masks, such as Cornell and the University of Michigan, professors have signed petitions asking for the choice to return to online education.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” warns a petition to the University of Iowa.
Universities are caught between the demands of their faculty for more security measures, the fear of losing students, and the revenue they will bring when schools take another year of online education.
“I think everyone would agree that the idea is to have people physically back in the classroom,” said Peter McDonough, general advisor to the American Council on Education, an organization of colleges and universities. “Turning on a dime to provide online education last year and the previous spring semester was only seen as temporary.”
For some faculties, the new year does not bring a return to normal, but a strong sense that things could go wrong. In the early weeks of class, cases have surged in schools including Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Arizona State, Liberty University, the University of Arkansas, the University of North Florida, and the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“It seems like a repeat,” said Michael Atzmon, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan. “On the one hand, we have the vaccine. On the other side, we have Delta.”
dr. Atzmon helped organize a petition asking the university to be more open to online education. It was signed by more than 700 teachers and instructors.
Commenting on the petition, Michigan President Mark Schlissel said on Thursday that given the “stellar” vaccination rate on the Ann Arbor campus (92 percent for students, 90 percent for teachers), the classroom is “perhaps the safest” used to be. place to be” on campus.
dr. Schlissel suggested that the faculty just need to get used to the idea that there would be Covid cases on campus. “A pandemic is troubling, it’s unpredictable and yes, it carries an unavoidable risk,” he said.
There are signs of resistance to government policies. Arizona’s three major public universities — University of Arizona, Arizona State, and Northern Arizona University — are tiptoeing around the ban on masks, requiring them in the classroom. If all students are required to wear masks, university officials believe they are obeying Governor Doug Ducey’s orders not to discriminate against students who choose not to get vaccinated.
“It’s kind of like a cat-and-mouse game,” said Peter Lake, a professor of education law at Stetson University.
Professors said Delta blinded them, like much of the world. They eagerly signed up to give in-person classes in March, they said, before reports of breakthrough infections from vaccinated people became common. Now their institutions make it difficult, if not impossible, to withdraw.
Some have sacrificed their jobs. Cody Luedtke, a biology instructor and lab coordinator at Perimeter College, part of Georgia State University, said she cried at the thought of teaching in a classroom where masks were not required.
When she refused to teach, she was fired, she said. “I just couldn’t do a job that went against my morals and my desire to protect my students and the wider community,” she said.
Irwin Bernstein, an 88-year-old psychology professor, said the University of Georgia lured him out of retirement this fall. But when he hung a “No mask, no class” sign in his classroom, his department head told him to remove it “because I violated the governor’s orders.”
During his next class, a student resisted wearing a mask, saying it was uncomfortable, he recalled. He announced that he was retiring—again—and walked out of the classroom.
Timothy Wilson, an engineering professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, resigned on the first day of class, revealing in an online essay that he was HIV-positive and thought the university’s optional mask policy was “wrong.”
James Tierney, an assistant professor of economics at Penn State, said he was frustrated with the mask mandate. He said it was difficult to hear students ask questions under their face coverings in his introductory class of 600 students in macroeconomics.
And when students slipped their masks off their faces, “I have to play the bad guy,” he said.
But the university’s reluctance to impose a vaccine mandate was “the tipping point,” he said. He resigned in protest, effective December 31, to give the school time to find a replacement.
Professors say the lack of clear rules has made functioning more difficult this year. Last year, the rules may have been draconian — potentially excluding from attending parties, for example — but they were also clear and effective, the professors said.
Last fall, “I could call the police if I wanted to,” said Leslie Kaplan, who teaches folklore at the University of North Florida. This year she has to use the art of persuasion.
In preparation for discussing Covid during freshman orientation, Dr. Kaplan two books on how to influence people. She brought in a recent graduate who had the virus and an epidemiologist. She talked about the importance of taking care of each other and begged students to put aside their political differences.
Only a handful of students showed up to her freshman orientation sessions unmasked, said Dr. Kaplan, and she credited her campaign.
Others have suggested more tangible incentives. The University of Texas at Austin told professors they could offer non-academic rewards, such as cookies, to persuade students to wear masks. (A university spokeswoman, Eliska Padilla, said this was an informal program, not an incentive program.)
Despite the emotional appeals and subtle hints, some students do their own thing.
Alex Vargas, a senior at the University of Texas, has not been vaccinated and in the first week of school he was the only person not to wear a mask in his small engineering class.
The professor, who wore a mask, called for a class vote on whether students wanted him to wear a mask or “he didn’t care,” recalled Mr. Vargas. The ‘doesn’t matter’ won by a few votes and the professor said he would keep his mask on, said Mr. Vargas.
“There were no mean comments, no ‘I’m not going to talk to you, I’m not going to look at you,'” said Mr. Vargas, the president of the Young Conservatives of Texas on campus, at his own discretion to go unmasked. “It was just, ‘That’s his choice, move on.'”
Susan C. Beachy and Jack Begg contributed research.