Though the coronavirus is still, as President Trump put it last week, a “thing,” universities around the country are opening for the fall semester, albeit with an array of restrictions in place that are intended to tamp down the virus’ spread among students and faculty. But those restrictions seem to be particularly lax at public universities in Georgia, where students and faculty have been protesting a reopening plan predicated on in-person instruction, and which critics feel does not adequately address several potentially hazardous areas of student life.
One such area is student housing, which came into focus last week after uncovered documents revealed that a property-management company called Corvias tried to pressure the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to ensure there are no limitations on dorm capacity this fall. In response to the letter, the Board of Regents considered directing Georgia State University to remove a 75-percent-occupancy cap on dorms controlled by Corvias.
Though the documents don’t reveal what, if any, action the Board of Regents ultimately took in response to the letter, they add weight to critics’ contention that the university system may be prioritizing profit over the health of its students as it plans to reopen campuses with in-person instruction, even as the pandemic ravages the state. On May 13th, when Board of Regents Chancellor Steve Wrigley announced in-person instruction would resume in the fall, 555 new coronavirus cases were reported in Georgia. On Sunday, the state Department of Health reported 2,839 new cases, and a seven-day average of 3,227. The USG lost $300 million in revenue during the spring and summer semesters and, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, estimated it would lose close to $500 million if its institutions converted to all-online classes in the fall.
The documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Georgia Tech student Kelly O’Neal, include a May 29th letter from Corvias President Chris Wilson to the Board of Regents. Corvias manages dorms at nine of the 26 higher-education institutions controlled by the University System of Georgia (USG), and in the letter, Wilson informed the Board of Regents that they do not have a contractural right to prevent, or even to discourage, students from living in these dorms.
In the letter, Wilson cites the potential financial ramifications the company could face as a result of any Covid-related occupancy restrictions, while offering a creative interpretation of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, writing that though the CDC believes reducing density will lead to less infection, density reduction doesn’t need to take place in rooms, only in common spaces, shared bathrooms, and other communal areas. In its “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education,” the Centers for Disease Control notes that the only way to avoid the highest possible risk to students is for universities to either close down dorms completely, or to limit their capacity while closing shared spaces.
— Corey Goergen, PhD (@CoreyGoergen) August 5, 2020
The documents reveal that in response to the letter from Corvias, the Board of Regents put together an agenda, dated June 10th, expressing concern over the “likely” litigation that would result from allowing Georgia State to go ahead with a plan to limit the occupancy of its dorms to 75 percent. The agenda lays out several options for how to proceed, including “directing” institutions to “lease all beds,” regardless of whatever occupancy restrictions those institutions may have put in place.
The degree to which the Board of Regents may exert influence over how its institutions set their housing policies is unclear. Despite the language of the agenda, which suggests the Board of Regents “direct” and “permit” institutions to take various actions, the Board of Regents claims the institutions alone are responsible for housing choices, telling Rolling Stone that they make their “own decisions[s] about housing capacities.” In a subsequent statement, the Board of Regents wrote that university housing plans were set before the Corvias letter was sent. “No USG institution factored Corvias’ demands into its campus housing plans for Fall 2020,” wrote spokesman Aaron Diamant. “Those plans had already been submitted to the system and followed DPH and CDC public health guidance. Nor did Corvias’ letter cause subsequent changes.”
Georgia State told Rolling Stone in an email that their initial plan to run dorms at 75 percent capacity was not implemented, attributing the change to low demand making such an occupancy cap unnecessary. The school stressed that “at no point was Georgia State University pressured to open its residence halls at full capacity this fall.”
Other USG institutions issued similar statements denying the Board of Regents influenced their housing policies, none of which include occupancy restrictions. Georgia Southern at Armstrong (68 percent occupancy this fall), and Dalton State (74 percent) may be able to chalk this up to low demand, but the University of North Georgia told Rolling Stone that their dorms will be operating at 96 percent occupancy this fall. The remaining five USG universities with Corvias-managed dorms did not respond to requests for comment. Corvias did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The relationship between Corvias and the USG began in 2014, when a public-private partnership was struck that gave Corvias $517 million in exchange for developing and managing student housing at nine public universities for the next 65 years. The deal was enabled by a piece of legislation passed days earlier that gifted a tax break to private companies operating dorms affiliated with public universities. The obvious problem with such an arrangement is that private companies might — just might! — wind up prioritizing their own profits over the health and well-being of university students.
“I just recognize that the private sector is very smart and they’re not going to lose money in the deal, and if they’re going to make money, then they’re going to protect themselves against the very worst risks that exist out there,” state Sen. Mike Crane, who voted against the resolution that enabled the deal, said at the time. “I don’t know how the taxpayers of Georgia and eventually the students who are paying for housing are going be protected in this transaction.”
Crane’s comments are proving prescient as the pandemic has put maximizing profits at odds with ensuring the health of students. It’s unclear, however, exactly what steps the Board of Regents took following the June 10th agenda, or what, if any, communication they may have had with Georgia State or other institutions regarding the letter from Corvias. One way or another, when classes resume later this month, it doesn’t appear their dorms will be operating with any capacity restrictions.
Those who have been tracking the USG’s response to the pandemic are skeptical of the story the Board of Regents is pushing. “The University System Office is absolutely dictating to the schools,” says Alexandra Edwards, a post-doctoral fellow in Georgia Tech’s English department who has been studying the USG’s response to the pandemic, adding that she was “pretty surprised” the Board of Regents would claim the individual institutions have control over their housing policies.
“The wording [of the Board of Regent’s statement] was interesting,” says Kelly O’Neal, the Georgia Tech student who obtained the documents. “Even though none of its individual member institutions were pressured, that doesn’t mean the USG didn’t necessarily feel that way, and they’re the ones making the overall decisions for these institutions. That’s something I’m hoping to looking into a little bit more.”
For Edwards, O’Neal, and others who have been critical of the USG, the uncovered documents only raise more questions about what has informed plans to reopen campuses this fall, and how decisions that potentially could put thousands of students at risk are being made. “Different institutions are taking different approaches to the coronavirus,” O’Neal says. “There are a lot of questions surrounding why [the Board of Regents] went this way. Was it influenced by the governor’s office? Was it influenced by private companies? Did they just decide in and of themselves that this is how they’re going to do it? There’s really just a lot of just questions and it’s very vague.”
Last Monday, faculty at the University of Georgia sent a resolution to the university’s president and Chancellor Wrigley, criticizing “inadequate” testing protocols, as well as a host of other issues. “It is deeply regrettable that the UGA and USG administrations have brought us so close to the opening of the Fall semester without a clear community understanding of the issues above,” they wrote. “Furthermore, these issues by no means exhaust the list of unanswered concerns, many of them literal matters of life and death, held by staff, students and faculty.”
Days after the resolution was sent, images of shoddy precautions — including paltry Plexiglas partitions in classrooms and duct-taped urinals — at the university began to pop up on Twitter. Similar images of almost comically inadequate precautions were taken in facilities at Georgia Tech. Students attending USG schools this fall are going to be indoors, at close quarters, for prolonged periods of time. There’s no way around it.
Last week, students and faculty at UGA protested by participating in a “die-in.”
— CBS46 (@cbs46) August 6, 2020
The conditions in classrooms and dorms aren’t the only problem. The college experience typically involves an active, crowded off-campus experience, and Edwards expressed special concern over the lack of consideration for the spread of the coronavirus outside campus facilities. “The thing that’s been really frustrating is the focus put on getting back into the classroom while not acknowledging that it’s not just the classroom that is going to be an issue,” she says. “These are little towns, and kids are going to interact no matter what.”
Though classes don’t resume until later this month, these little towns are starting to repopulate. O’Neal says that from what she’s seen, the move-in process at Georgia Tech has been going smoothly, with almost everyone wearing masks, but that “after people kind of settled and felt more comfortable” they were less inclined to follow safety precautions. “Again, it just brings up the question of how we’re going to enforce these things,” she says. “How do we encourage people to do it and, if we’re not enforcing it, are they actually going to follow by those rules? Probably not.”
The concerns raised in the resolution sent by University of Georgia faculty were similar to those raised in a letter published by Georgia Tech faculty last month criticizing reopening plans that “do not follow science-based evidence, increase the health risks to faculty, students and staff, and interfere with nimble decision-making necessary to prepare and respond to Covid-19 infection risk.”
Chancellor Wrigley responded to the letter from Georgia Tech faculty by maintaining that institutions need to hold in-person classes in order to “carry out our mission to serve our state.” Georgia is governed by Brian Kemp, who arguably has taken more action to exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 throughout his state than any other governor in America. The governor is in charge of appointing members of the Board of Regents, and in January Kemp named five new appointees, some of which had ties to his campaign. “We continue to follow CDC and DPH guidance, and as [the pandemic] evolves, our guidance will as well,” Wrigley wrote in July. “We also receive information from the Governor’s Task Force and, of course, must adhere to executive orders from the Governor’s Office.”
But so far, no form of this “evolution” includes scaling back in-person instruction, and though the Board of Regents claims USG universities have discretion over how they set their policies, that discretion is only allowed within parameters set by the Board of Regents.
"and they must make these decisions at the institutional level as each has its own unique needs."
"The decisions need to be aligned with the overall guidance and goals, including returning to on-campus instruction…"
WE HAVE TO BE ON-CAMPUS
— Alexandra Edwards, PhD (@nonmodernist) July 17, 2020
“We, like you, are determined to address the many challenges,” Wrigley wrote in the letter. “We believe in the value and importance to students of the on-campus experience. It is simply a richer, more well-rounded educational experience.”
As Edwards wrote in a tweet criticizing the response, “One wonders if by ‘richer,’ Chancellor Wrigley means ‘more profitable.'”