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Georgia professors are quitting over their universities’ lax mask rules: ‘This is a matter of life and death’

A protester holds a sign opposing in-person classes at a “die-in” at Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Aug. 17. (Jeff Amy/AP)
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After more than a year of working from home, lecturer Cornelia Lambert was days away from returning to the University of North Georgia to teach a seminar on the history of infectious diseases when she began having second thoughts.

Several things worried her. Coronavirus cases tied to the highly transmissible delta variant were on the rise. Although she is vaccinated, Lambert feared the possibility of infecting her immunocompromised husband. But above all, she said, there was no way to make her classroom safe for her students since she could not require masks or proof of vaccination.

Lambert, who received her university’s “Excellence in Online Teaching Award” earlier this year, asked if she could teach her fall courses virtually. The university declined, she said.

“The next day, I quit,” Lambert, 45, told The Washington Post. “I was going to feel like a fraud sitting there and talking to my students about public health while being paid by an institution that’s ignoring public health.”

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A spokesperson with the University of North Georgia did not respond to a message from The Post sent late Tuesday. The school’s website encourages people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors.

Lambert, who joined the university in 2015, is among a group of Georgia state professors who have chosen to walk away from their jobs as their schools reopen for the fall semester without mask or vaccine mandates. Last month, another professor at the University of North Georgia resigned days before the semester was set to begin, citing inadequate covid-19 safety measures.

As college campuses reopen, many faculty members worry about covid

Some instructors who have agreed to return to the classroom have voiced their concerns about students going mask-free. An assistant professor at Dalton State College, near the Tennessee border, said he shows his students an ultrasound image of his unborn child at the start of each class as a plea for them to wear masks. His wife is due next month.

The request is not always granted.

“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.”

Although the University System of Georgia, which governs state schools, has said it “strongly encouraged” students, faculty and staff to wear masks and get coronavirus vaccines, its board announced earlier this year that those precautions would not be required.

“While we urge vaccination for everyone, we recognize it is an individual decision to receive one and not required to be on our campuses,” Aaron Diamant, a University System of Georgia spokesman, told The Post in an email.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has strongly opposed statewide mask and vaccination mandates, calling them “dictatorship in government.”

University of Georgia professor Irwin Bernstein was getting ready to begin his second psychology class of the semester last week when an unmasked student walked into his classroom, Bernstein told The Post in an email.

At 88, Bernstein — who suffers from Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease — had come out of retirement to teach this fall. He explained his health conditions to the student and requested she wear a mask.

A peer gave the unmasked student a spare mask, Bernstein told The Post. The student put it on but did not cover her nose, the Red & Black first reported. About 15 minutes into class, Bernstein asked the student to fix her mask but she did not comply, according to the college newspaper.

The student said the mask was “uncomfortable,” Bernstein told The Post.

That marked the end of class.

“I told her that I would resign and left,” Bernstein recalled.

In a statement to the Red & Black, the professor added that he “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.”

Gregory Trevor, a spokesman for the University of Georgia, told The Post in an email that the school is “doing everything in its power to protect the health, safety and well-being of our community,” but it cannot require masks as part of the University System of Georgia.

The university, which reported 231 positive coronavirus cases between Aug. 16 and 22, has administered nearly 25,000 vaccines at the University Health Center.

Like Lambert at the University of North Georgia, Cody Luedtke — a lab coordinator at Georgia State University — also had second thoughts about teaching in person ahead of the fall semester.

“I realized that I couldn’t bring myself and my students into a classroom environment that was unsafe, which was a classroom where masks weren’t required,” Luedtke, 34, told The Post.

So Luedtke, who had worked at the university since 2015, wrote a letter to administrators informing them that she refused to teach in person.

“This is a matter of life and death,” Luedtke wrote in the letter, which she shared with The Post. She offered to teach in person if she could institute a mask mandate. Otherwise, she said, she preferred to teach online.

Her request was also denied. She said she was terminated on Aug. 20 after refusing to resign.

Luedtke said she is relieved she will not be responsible for dozens of students in a lab where it would be impossible to practice social distancing.

“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,” she said.

A spokesperson with Georgia State University did not respond to a message from The Post but said in a statement to CNN Newsource that Luedtke did not qualify for remote work.

Both Lambert and Luedtke are looking for other opportunities in higher education, they said.