AS OF Sept. 4, Statesboro was the second highest metro area in the United States for having the greatest number of COVID-19 cases relative to population over the previous two weeks.
Of course, Statesboro is home to Georgia Southern University, which resumed classes Aug. 17. Some classes have been offered virtually, but face-to-face instruction is still allowed to happen at the school, which recorded 508 new cases in one week across three campuses. (In its third week, Georgia Southern recorded 363 new cases, bringing the total since reopening to nearly 950.)
Who’s to blame in this situation? You might say the University System of Georgia for failing to localize control to each of its 26 universities. You might look to the state or federal government for their failure to take definitive action. But top officials think the blame lies much lower on the pecking order.
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On Aug. 28, an email went out to students from President Dr. Kyle Marrero, Provost Dr. Carl Reiber, and VP of Student Affairs Dr. Shay Davis Little. The email asked students to take responsibility and monitor their behavior by limiting social events, and then invokes the Student Code of Conduct against them. (All emails sent by Georgia Southern can be found at the above link.)
The code in question reserves the University’s right to “apply sanctions or take other appropriate action” when a student’s conduct challenges the university’s ability to ensure educational opportunities or to protect property. In other words, Georgia Southern can remove a student if they feel they’re not keeping campus safe.
The email also reminds the students how excited they’ve been for this semester and warns of having to follow the suit of other universities, who have had to cancel student activities and move to online learning. (That is what many faculty have asked to happen since the summer.)
Then on Sept. 4, before the long Labor Day weekend, students, faculty and staff received another email that asked them not to travel and asks students to stay on campus instead of going home.
This sets a dangerous precedent for students at Georgia Southern and sets up the entire community for unsafe conditions.
Georgia Southern currently operates under a self-reporting system through the CARES Center. Students, faculty and staff can report COVID-19 test results and symptoms through the online portal. If a student reports through the portal, CARES sends an email to the student’s professors advising them that the student will not be able to attend class and may need some extra time to complete work.
However, one professor on the Statesboro campus told us they’ve had students talk about a potential quarantine and then never received a CARES email for that student, meaning that the student didn’t report themselves through the portal.
And, to be clear, what would motivate a student to report themselves as having COVID-19 if the administration itself blames their social interactions on the spread and then invokes the school’s code of conduct against them?
“They’re not wanting to contact CARES because they don’t want to get in trouble for having it, and they don’t want to be kicked off campus because so many of those students who do contact CARES are told, ‘You should go home,’” said the professor we spoke to under condition of anonymity.
“They count the cases through self-reporting, so it’s kind of scary to go into class, because I think, ‘How many of these people had a cough today and chose to just come to class and not self-report?’” adds a student on the Savannah campus.
To be clear, individuals do have a certain level of responsibility in protecting themselves and their community. Face coverings help protect others, so they are mandatory on campus. To interact in public with others, everyone must take steps to be responsible.
But consider the situation: Georgia Southern University chose to resume face-to-face classes instead of going entirely virtual, allowed students to move into the dorms, will still host their season opener football game on Sept. 12, and asks students to self-report any symptoms or positive test results, but then reminds students that they can be removed from campus for not following safety protocol and opens up the narrative that they may be blamed for being sick.
It seems naive to bring college students back to campus and then ask them not to socialize with each other, but it’s also potentially an example of the university not acting within best practice —and then pushing the responsibility onto students to mitigate a situation they created.
You can find another, possibly more egregious example of this blaming within Georgia Southern’s Greek life.
On Aug. 31, Greek councils on both Statesboro and Savannah campuses announced that they would refrain from hosting social events and would hold virtual meetings through Oct. 1. The councils made a similar decision in the summer, when they chose to hold rush events virtually instead of in person.
However, on Sept. 1, Statesboro Mayor Jonathan McCollar held a press conference in which he blamed the uptick in positive cases on the college’s Greek life.
“The uptick in cases that they saw, nearly half of those came from Greeks and a rush that occurred prior to classes starting,” said McCollar. “[Georgia Southern] immediately communicated with these organizations. What these organizations have done is move all social events online. So that’s a win.”
Francisco Lugo, director of fraternity and sorority life, disputes that statement.
“Everything was done virtually; I’m not sure where he’s getting those numbers,” says Lugo. “We made the decision with our students to do everything virtually in July because we wanted to make sure we kept our members safe.”
While the Savannah campus has far fewer cases than Statesboro, that could quickly change. After the merger, some classes are available on only one campus, so students have to commute.
It’s unclear to what extent that is still happening, but one Savannah campus employee spoke of knowing several students who are going back and forth between campuses, though the students have largely stopped going to class unless necessary. (A request for comment from the registrar’s office was not answered by press time.)
Additionally, some faculty members are commuting between campuses to teach classes, and some students who were supposed to live on the Statesboro campus were moved to the Savannah campus because of space limitations.
As aforementioned, Georgia Southern still plans on hosting its first football game of the season on Sept. 12. Paulson Stadium will reduce its capacity to 25% and implement enhanced safety precautions.
Last season, the university ran a shuttle from Savannah to Statesboro for game days, but it’s unclear if that will happen this year.