As universities reopen for in-person classes, students — especially those enrolled in institutions that have banned or restricted mask mandates — are going mask-free despite persistent pleas by their professors. This cavalier attitude has prompted a growing number of faculty to voice concerns about their students’ indifference toward the pandemic.
At state universities in Georgia, Texas, and Florida, where infection rates are high and vaccination and masking are optional, professors are allowed to “strongly encourage” students to put on masks. Still, they cannot force them to do so. Additionally, students who show COVID symptoms cannot be barred from the classroom.
Worried about their health and the safety of other students, some faculty and staff have quit in protest against such reckless student behavior.
‘I Was Not Willing to Risk My Life to Teach a Class’
88-year-old Georgia professor Irwin Bernstein, who had come out of retirement to start teaching again, decided to step down from his position after one of his students refused to wear a mask properly during a lecture. Bernstein argued that his age and underlying medical conditions made him vulnerable to COVID-19.
“Whereas I had risked my life to defend my country while in the Air Force, I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student during this pandemic,” Bernstein wrote in an email to the university newspaper, The Red & Black.
Pushed to the brink, instructors are taking recourse to all kinds of measures to ensure students wear masks.
Dalton State College instructor Matthew LeHew told The Washington Post that he shows his students an ultrasound image of his unborn child at the start of each class so that they understand why he is scared of the pandemic.
Not all students pay heed though. “In small, at-capacity classrooms, only 5 of 45 of my students wore a mask,” he tweeted. “I’ll never be able to look at this job the same way.”
I start every class with an ultrasound picture of my son due in October, pleading with my students to wear masks as a personal favor to my family. In small, at-capacity classrooms, only 5 of 45 of my students wore a mask. I’ll never be able to look at this job the same way.
— Matthew LeHew (@matthewlehew) August 30, 2021
Universities Fear Pushback
From non-academic awards such as cookies to emotional appeals and subtle hints, professors are doing everything at their disposal to cajole students into wearing masks.
Caught between the demands of faculty and the fear of losing students, universities are seeing pushback from faculty and staff about their vaccination and masking policies. Hundreds of Penn State faculty are protesting against the administration, pressuring them to mandate vaccination for everyone at the university. The university, in return, has threatened disciplinary action.
“A lot of instructors are role models for students, and I didn’t want to be a role model that was knowingly putting my students in harm’s way,” said Cody Luedtke, a lab coordinator at Georgia State, terminated for refusing to teach in the absence of a mask mandate.