The Kennesaw State University faculty senate has voted overwhelmingly in support of vaccine mandates at University System of Georgia institutions, as well as mask mandates at institutions in areas of elevated community transmission of COVID-19.
The faculty senate vote calling on the board of regents of the university system to require vaccinations against COVID-19 for students, faculty and staff passed by a 33-6 vote. The motion calling on the board of regents to allow presidents of individual USG campuses in areas of substantial or high community transmission to require face coverings in indoor settings passed 34-2.
High community transmission refers to any area that has at least 100 positive COVID-19 cases for every 100,000 residents. Substantial transmission is 50 or more cases per 100,000 residents. Cobb & Douglas Public Health reports Cobb County is at a level more than eight times the high transmission mark, with a 14-day case rate of 814 cases per 100,000 residents.
The KSU faculty senate’s votes do not change KSU or USG policy but essentially serve as an official opinion of KSU faculty and urge the university system to change its COVID-19 policies. KSU faculty senate members are elected by their department faculty and each member represents a department.
The USG’s current policies “strongly encourage” but do not require mask wearing and vaccination at USG institutions.
The University of North Georgia similarly passed by a wide margin late last month a resolution calling on USG Acting Chancellor Teresa MacCartney and the president of UNG to issue executive orders mandating adherence to CDC mask guidelines.
Professors at other Georgia universities have made COVID-related headlines as the school year has begun, including an 88-year-old University of Georgia professor who resigned in the middle of a class last month after a student refused to wear their mask correctly. Meanwhile, some professors have reportedly bucked the USG’s lack of mask mandates, requiring masks in their individual classes.
In an emailed statement to the MDJ on Monday, USG spokesman Aaron Diamant said the system’s leaders “remain committed to keeping our campus communities healthy and safe.”
Diamant pointed to a “$200 well-being credit” for all employees who get vaccinated and said the USG continues to work closely with the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Diamant also said the university system’s 26 colleges and universities have administered thousands of vaccine doses, “and continue to help faculty, staff and students get vaccinated either on campus or with a local provider.”
“While we urge vaccination for everyone, we recognize it is an individual decision to receive one and not required to be on our campuses,” he said.
What does the KSU faculty senate’s move mean?
Heather Pincock is a conflict management and political science professor at KSU and serves on the faculty senate as the representative of the department of conflict management. Pincock, who sponsored the KSU resolution, said the motions were directed at MacCartney and the USG’s board of regents because KSU leaders, like at other Georgia universities, “are extremely constrained by state-level directives.”
Pincock pointed out that there were a few abstentions and absences from the votes, but said the move from the 48-member KSU faculty senate shows the widespread support for stronger COVID-19 mitigation efforts as cases in Cobb remain high and professors instruct classes that at times can have hundreds of students in them with no physical distancing.
“I’ve been hearing from quite a few colleagues about their concern about being required to teach in the classroom without sufficient COVID safety policies in place, and students as well I’ve heard from who were very concerned,” she said. “So I wanted to put this existing set of recommendations that was already circulating and a lot of faculty have seen and signed as individuals in the form of a petition forward to give our senate at KSU an opportunity to take a vote and decide where we stand.”
Pincock said she hopes the vote opens the discussion for other suggestions from faculty and staff about how to better protect Georgia’s university campuses and staff.
But, she added, “I honestly don’t know what it will take for people at the system office or on the (board of regents) to reconsider their position.”
USG’s own policy the target of debate
Pincock said KSU’s faculty resolutions support a letter from the USG Regents Advisory Council for Biological Sciences, which called for the USG to apply a portion of its own policy on vaccinations to COVID-19 and to adhere to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mask wearing. The open letter has received thousands of signatures.
The referenced USG policies cover immunizations during disease outbreaks and immunization requirements for students. The policies say that during “an epidemic or a threatened epidemic of any disease preventable by immunization at a University System of Georgia (USG) institution, and when an emergency has been declared by appropriate health authorities of this State,” the president of an institution, in conjunction with the chancellor of the USG and health authorities may enact rules “specifying diseases against which immunizations may be required.”
“Any individual who cannot show proof of immunity or adequate immunization and refuses to be immunized shall be excluded from any USG institution or facility until valid evidence of immunization against the disease is presented or the epidemic or threat no longer constitutes a significant public health danger,” the referenced policy continues.
But in July memos to its institutions obtained through an open records request, the USG says while all faculty, staff and students are “strongly encouraged to receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” students should not be asked about their vaccine status or segregated in a classroom or from other instructor-student interactions based on their vaccination status.
The memos also say institutions will return to campus in the fall “with no social distancing measures,” and that professors are not allowed to switch their course instruction from in-person to virtual.
KSU policies and vaccine incentives
KSU spokeswoman Tammy DeMel did not answer specific questions on the KSU faculty senate’s decision, instead referring the MDJ back to the university’s online COVID-19 guidance.
Guidance on KSU’s website says everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is “encouraged to wear a face covering while inside campus facilities.” Those who are unvaccinated “are also strongly encouraged to continue to socially distance while inside campus facilities.”
Signs urging mask wearing also hang on the doors to many campus buildings.
The university also “strongly encourages” vaccination, says testing will continue to be provided and disposable face coverings will be available in each building on both campuses.
In a recent email to the KSU community, interim President Kathy Schwaig said “it has been a welcome change to finally see the campuses come to life again,” but stressed the importance of getting vaccinated, calling the vaccine “the most important weapon we have against the virus.”
KSU is also offering vaccination incentives, including money toward on-campus eateries and shops, free parking permits, Amazon gift cards and free t-shirts.
KSU has reported 261 confirmed COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff from Aug. 21 to Aug. 27, according to the latest data available on its website. Of those cases, 247 were students.