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ATLANTA (AP) -- Georgia's 26 public universities and colleges will mandate campus-wide mask wearing after the state university system reversed itself on Monday.

The University System of Georgia had previously told schools they should "strongly encourage" students and others to wear masks, but said that the system's 26 universities couldn't mandate face coverings for their 330,000 students despite concerns about COVID-19 transmission.

Masks became a central point of contention in part because all the universities, at the behest of regents, are planning face-to-face instruction for all students beginning in August. 

Faculty and employees have increasingly been demanding that their institutions mandate masks to slow virus transmission, signing letters and petitions. Administrators on Monday evening agreed, saying all faculty, staff, students and visitors must wear masks inside buildings beginning July 15.

"Face covering use will be in addition to and is not a substitute for social distancing," the system wrote in its online announcement.

Masks won't be required in dorm rooms or outdoors, or when alone in private offices or study rooms. Those who refuse will be asked to mask up or leave, and could be disciplined for repeated refusal.

The system also widened the list of conditions that can qualify employees to teach or work remotely, which had become another flash point.

The system credited both shifts to changes in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointing to a June 25 press release. That statement broadened CDC guidance on who might be at risk of severe illness, removing the previous age threshold of 65 and including pregnancy and obesity as risk factors. It reiterated guidance on mask use, but did not explicitly change it.

Faculty groups at Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Augusta University and the University of West Georgia had sent letters protesting, as did the United Campus Workers of Georgia, a union that represents employees at multiple universities.

"This is the bare minimum and it took too long." Janet Frick, a University of Georgia psychology professor wrote on Twitter Monday night.

Faculty and staff demands are broader than just masks. For example, multiple groups say their campuses need a better plan to test for and isolate coronavirus infections. Beyond that, some faculty members continue to push for more online teaching, which at some institutions can require high-level approval.

"We emphasize that no faculty, staff, or student should be coerced into risking their health and the health of their families by working and/or learning on campus when there is a remote/online equivalent," wrote Georgia Tech faculty in a petition that's garnered 900 faculty signatures.

Each university developed its own reopening plan, but used system guidance to do so and had to get system approval. Some faculty members say governor-appointed regents and Chancellor Steve Wrigley are keeping too tight a reign on the sprawling system, saying they need to do more to empower presidents.

"A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for the diversity within the University System of Georgia campuses," wrote members of two faculty committees at Georgia State. "Therefore, we believe that each university president should have the autonomy to devise a specific plan, in consultation with their own faculty, to best address the safety and health of their university communities. 

 

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