Matthew Boedy, an associate professor of rhetoric and composition, sent out a raw emotional appeal to his students at the University of North Georgia just before classes began: The Covid-19 delta variant was rampaging through the state, filling up hospital beds. He would teach class in the equivalent of full body armor – vaccinated and masked.
So he was stunned in late August when more than two-thirds of the first-year students in his writing class did not take the hint and showed up unmasked.
It was impossible to tell who was vaccinated and who was not. “It isn’t a visual hellscape, like hospitals; it’s more of an emotional hellscape,” Boedy said.
North Georgia is not requiring its students to be vaccinated or masked this fall. And as in-person classes return at almost every university in the country, after almost 1 1/2 years of emergency pivoting to online learning, many professors are finding teaching a nerve-racking experience.
The American College Health Association recommends vaccination requirements for all on-campus higher education students for the fall semester. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends face coverings, regardless of vaccine status, for indoor public spaces in areas where the rate of infection is high.
But this is not how it has worked out on more than a few campuses.
More than 1,000 colleges and universities have adopted vaccination requirements for at least some students and staff, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. In an indication of how political vaccination has become, the schools tend to be clustered in states that voted for President Joe Biden in the last election.
But at some campuses, particularly in Republican-led states with high rates of contagion – like 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 that they are “strongly encouraged” or “expected” to put on masks, but cannot force students to do so. And teachers cannot ask students who have Covid-like symptoms to leave the classroom. Certainly, some professors are happy to go maskless.
At least nine states – Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Tennessee – have banned or restricted school mask mandates. It is unclear, education officials say, whether all of these prohibitions apply to universities, but public universities depend on state funding.
A smattering of faculty members have resigned in protest over optional mask policies. Most, like Boedy, are soldiering on. But the level of fear is so high that even at universities that do require vaccination and masks, like Cornell University and the University of Michigan, professors have signed petitions asking for the choice to return to online teaching.
“Morale is at an all-time low,” warns a petition at the University of Iowa.
Universities are caught between the demands of their faculty for greater safety precautions, and the fear of losing students, and the revenue they bring, if schools return to another year of online education.
“I think everybody agrees that the idea is to have people physically back in the classroom,” said Peter McDonough, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an organization of colleges and universities. “The turning on a dime to provide online education last year and the previous spring semester was only seen as temporary.”
For some faculty, the new year brings not a return to normal but a strong sense that things could go off the rails. In the first weeks of class, case counts have risen at schools including Duke University, 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 hand, we have delta.”
Atzmon helped organize a petition asking the university to be more open to online teaching. It was signed by more than 700 faculty members and instructors.
In a response to the petition, Michigan’s president, Mark Schlissel, said Thursday that, given the “stellar” rate of vaccination at the Ann Arbor campus (92% for students, 90% for faculty), the classroom was “perhaps the safest place to be.”
Schlissel suggested that faculty would just have to get used to the idea that there would be Covid cases on campus. “A pandemic is unsettling, it’s unpredictable, and yes, it involves an unavoidable level of risk,” he said.
There are signs of defiance against state policies. The three big public universities in Arizona – University of Arizona, Arizona State and Northern Arizona University – are tiptoeing around the ban on masks and requiring them in class. If all students have to wear masks, university officials believe that they are obeying Gov. Doug Ducey’s order not to discriminate against students who choose not to be vaccinated.
“It’s kind of a cat-and-mouse game,” said Peter Lake, an education law professor at Stetson University.
Professors said that delta blindsided them, like much of the world. They enthusiastically signed up to teach in-person classes in March, they said, before reports of breakthrough infections of vaccinated people became common. Now their institutions are making it hard, if not impossible, for them to back out.
A few 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 perform a job duty that went against my morals and my desire to protect my students and the broader community,” she said.
Irwin Bernstein, an 88-year-old psychology professor, said the University of Georgia had lured him out of retirement this fall. But when he posted a “No mask, No class” sign in his classroom, his department head told him to take it down “since I was in violation of the governor’s order.”
At 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 class.
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 that he was frustrated by its mask mandate. He said that it was hard to hear students asking questions under their face coverings in his 600-student introductory class in macroeconomics.
And when students let their masks slip down 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 Dec. 31, to give the school time to find a replacement.
Professors say that the lack of clear rules this year has made it harder to function. Last year, the rules may have been draconian – possible expulsion for attending parties, for instance – 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.
To prepare for discussing Covid at freshman orientation, Kaplan read two books about how to influence people. She brought in a recent graduate who had the virus and a public health researcher. She talked about the importance of looking out for one another, and implored students to put their political differences aside.
Only a handful of students came to her freshman orientation sessions unmasked, Kaplan said, and she credited her campaign.
Others have suggested more tangible inducements. The University of Texas at Austin told professors that they could offer nonacademic rewards, like cookies, to cajole students to wear masks. (A university spokesperson, Eliska Padilla, said this was informal, 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, is not vaccinated and, in the first week of school, he was the only person not wearing a mask in his small engineering class.
The professor, who was wearing a mask, called for a vote in class on whether students wanted him to wear a mask or “didn’t care,” Vargas recalled. The “didn’t cares” won by a vote or two, and the professor said he would keep his mask on, Vargas said.
“There were no snarky remarks, no ‘I’m not going to talk to you, not going to look at you,’” Vargas, chair of the Young Conservatives of Texas on campus, said, of his own choice to go unmasked. “It was just, ‘That’s his choice, move on.’”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.