By Arielle Robinson
A mix of Kennesaw State University student and faculty groups protested Monday and are protesting every weekday this week to call for mask mandates and other COVID-19 safety protocols at the university.
The protests are directed at the University System of Georgia, rather than KSU, as KSU follows USG policies.
The protests are also a coordinated effort between 16 USG schools. Similar protests are occurring at schools like Georgia State University, the University of Georgia, the University of West Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology, among others.
The protests are sponsored and organized by the faculty and student worker union United Campus Workers of Georgia and the American Association of University Professors.
At KSU, student groups Young Democrats and Young Democratic Socialists of America also helped rally for the cause.
“We are concerned about what’s happening here,” UCWGA KSU member and KSU professor Dr. Heather Pincock said. “We’re targeting the USG and the [Board of Regents] downtown because they are running things, they are dictating the policy here.”
Pincock said that KSU interim President Dr. Kathy Schwaig is unable to enforce any COVID-19 protocols, so that is why the USG and BOR are targeted.
At Monday’s protest, a number of KSU professors addressed their fears about the lack of protocols put in place to protect faculty and students on campus.
Below are transcripts of what they said. Some parts have been omitted.
Dr. Jillian Ford touched on COVID statistics locally and statewide:
“The spread of the much more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19, combined with relatively low vaccination in Georgia, have generated a tragic amount of preventable illness and death in our state, which we know has disproportionately affected people of color and poor and working-class communities. On Sunday, Georgia had 68 ICU beds left available for a population of 10.6 million. This is the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that all 14 hospital regions in our state are using more than 90 percent of their beds at the same time. Four regions in our state are currently over 100 percent. Forty-three percent of Georgians are fully vaccinated, and those who are unvaccinated are at extremely high risk for COVID-19. Since January 2021, 277 vaccinated people have died of COVID-19 in Georgia while 7,558 unvaccinated people have died. Many of these deaths were preventable.
In Cobb County specifically, the 14-day case rate is 663 per 100,000, which is considered a high level of community transmission. That is over 5,000 cases in the last two weeks in a county with a population of about 790,000. Cobb has not seen community transmission rates this high since January 2021, which is when the USG had a mask mandate and social distancing protocols in place for all in-person classes. Even though overall case numbers in Cobb and neighboring Douglas County has decreased slightly over the last week, there is still an increase from last week in children ages 5-17 of 21 percent. In the last 14 days, hospitalizations in Cobb County are up 18 percent and 42 have died of COVID-19 — an average of three people dying each day in our county alone. COVID has killed about 1,200 people in Cobb County in total, to date. This is a crisis in our country, our state and our county. Many of these hospitalizations and deaths could have been prevented and so far our leaders here in Georgia, at the University System of Georgia have failed us.”
Dr. Hans Skott-Myhre, a KSU professor and the Vice President of the AAUP on campus talked about what campus looks like in light of the lax COVID protocols:
“ [The USG and BOR are] refusing to let the KSU president make decisions on the best way to keep our campus and surrounding communities safe and healthy in the middle of this latest surge. They’re not limiting classrooms or dorm capacity to allow for social distancing indoors and KSU has over 42,000 students enrolled in a record-breaking freshman class of 9,000. They’re encouraging, but not requiring masking in indoor spaces. As a result, many classrooms at KSU have large numbers of unmasked people gathering indoors. They’re encouraged but not requiring students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated. As a result, we have no idea what the level of vaccine protection is here at KSU. They’re publishing weekly totals of COVID-19 cases reported in KSU based on self-reported data, they are not providing a complete picture of the case numbers or the level of community transmission on our campus.
They’re offering testing on campus, but you must have health insurance to pay for it. They’re not requiring or making free testing available. They’re not doing randomized rapid testing to accurately monitor case numbers. They’re not making accommodations to allow faculty, staff or students who live with immunocompromised loved ones or children under 12 who cannot be vaccinated to teach, work or learn online. They’re not letting professors livestream their classes so that students who need or want to isolate can still get class material. They’re not letting professors who have even been exposed to or become ill with COVID-19 move their classes online — even for one day — without permission. They’re telling professors to find a substitute or livestream with a proctor in the classroom. Finally, they are threatening professors who require masks in their classrooms or move their classes online even temporarily, with docked pay or being fired.”
Dr. Nina Morgan, who has taught at KSU for 26 years, called on the USG to restore the mask mandate and safety measures that were in place before the USG announced this May they would be returning to full operations:
“I’ve been on campus longer than the president and many of her staff. I’ve been involved with Kennesaw State University longer than many of the regents. And I know that this campus is suffering due to their ignorant policies. It’s humiliating to be lead by people who don’t understand science. Last year they had a mandate to wear masks. Where’s the mandate now, when COVID is even worse? Why did they have a mandate last year and not this year? They could re-institute their own policy to protect students. My students, who are paying to go to class, don’t attend because they are afraid of the other students who refuse to mask. The USG is pitting students against students. But all of them pay to come to school here. The USG could just re-institute the mask mandate and protect all of the students. Vaccinations, reporting of COVID, there are better ways to handle this initiative. We need to explain to people because we are educators, we need to stand up for science because we are educators. We need to let people understand the facts, not the fear. The USG should be embarrassed that this is not an advance they are willing to support — the advancement of science, the advancement of health, the protection of our community.
What does the USG do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that the federal government gave the USG over COVID? Did they repair our ventilation system? No! We don’t know what they did with that money. Where’s the money? Did they buy masks for students? No, they didn’t. What could the USG do? Could they institute social distancing in the classroom? Yes, they can. Did they do that last year? Yes. And why did they stop? Because they are afraid. Who are they afraid of? Are they afraid of [Brian] Kemp? I feel sorry for the Kemp family, I’m sure they are in mourning due to the COVID death of their family member. Do you think that will change their mind? Why is it that they are such poor students? They just administer the will of a small population that does not really have the protection of the people in its heart. These are our students. We have to model correct behavior and intelligent behavior and educated behavior. And in the name of a pandemic that means wearing a mask.”
When the Courier reached out to KSU for comments from the administration on the protests and demands, a spokeswoman directed us to KSU’s COVID information website.
The website allows for students, faculty and staff to self-report cases and request a test.
KSU’s website, adhering to USG policies, stops short of enforcing COVID safety measures. Rather, they “strongly encourage” people to wear masks, social distance and get vaccinated.
KSU has received criticism in the past for the way they report COVID numbers on campus.
Hidden under the FAQ section, KSU only reports COVID numbers for the previous week and updates them at the end of each week. There is no cumulative count that allows people to analyze trends.
The university reported that from Sep. 4 through Sep. 10, there were 136 total confirmed cases, with 128 of those reporting being students.
YDSA KSU member and student Carson DeMoss said he is worried about faculty members who are potentially exposed to COVID from teaching all day, while Young Democrats KSU President Mason Cochran said that mask-wearing in his classes is about an even split.
“You don’t even know real means of assessing whether or not your class is going to be an issue as far as contact tracing or lots of breakthrough cases,” Cochran said.
Pincock said that concerned students, faculty and staff should not just stop at protesting.
She encouraged people to sign a petition created by UCWGA calling for COVID safety measures, such as vaccine and mask mandates, transparent reporting of COVID numbers on campuses, remote learning options and more.
Protests at KSU for the rest of the week are held on the Campus Green.
Today’s protest is at noon, Thursday’s is at 1 p.m. and Friday’s protest is at 2 p.m.
Arielle Robinson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She also freelances for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution and is the former president of KSU’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as well as a former CNN intern. She enjoys music, reading, and live shows.