No Mask, No Class for UGA Professor

No Mask, No Class for UGA Professor

Bernstein hit national news when he suddenly re-retired during a class on Aug. 24 after a student refused to wear a mask, despite his explaining why it was critical for his health.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Irwin S. Bernstein, “re-retired” University of Georgia professor.
Irwin S. Bernstein, “re-retired” University of Georgia professor.

At this point in his life, Professor Irwin S. Bernstein did not need to be standing in front of a classroom of University of Georgia psychology students. After a distinguished career, the 88-year-old expert in primate behavior was a “retiree-rehire,” who had returned to teach two classes.

Bernstein became national news by suddenly re-retiring during a class on Aug. 24 — after a student refused to wear a mask, despite his explaining why it was critical for his health.

In keeping with the policy directives of Gov. Brian Kemp, the University System of Georgia mandates neither vaccination nor masks. USG instead “urges all students, faculty, staff and visitors to get vaccinated” and “everyone is encouraged to wear a mask or face covering while inside campus facilities.”

University of Georgia in Athens has 29,848 students enrolled for the 2021 school year.

On the first day of the upper-level, 25-student class, “I had put a notice on the whiteboard — ‘No mask, no class’ — and afterwards, was told that I could not do that and took it down,” Bernstein told the AJT by email.

“I had explained to the class that my age and co-morbidities would make COVID life threatening for me,” because of such underlying conditions as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and age-related issues, Bernstein wrote. “All had agreed to cooperate on the first day. The student who refused was absent on the first day and when she came to class, I explained my situation. She had no mask, but another student gave her a spare. She started to put it on but said it was uncomfortable and removed it.”

That was the last straw for Bernstein, who already was concerned about the COVID-19 situation on campus. UGA’s student newspaper, The Red & Black, reported that Bernstein was aware that two students absent the first day of class had tested positive for COVID-19. “At that point I said that whereas I 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,” he told the newspaper. “I then resigned my retiree-rehire position.”

Fourth-year psychology student Hannah Huff told The Red & Black: “Professor Bernstein said, ‘That’s it. I’m retired,’ and we watched him pack all of his papers into his bag and walk out of the classroom.”

Bernstein told the AJT, “I have been told that she later said that she could not breathe (I had seen no indication of that, and she never said anything about it directly to me). Another student also reported that when I left, the first student had laughed and told the class that she had just done them a favor.”

According to the Georgia Department of Public Health, as of Sept. 9 the state had recorded more than 1.14 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 20,400 confirmed COVID-related deaths. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 42 percent of eligible Georgians were fully vaccinated, better than only five other states and equal to four others.

“After resigning and talking to the department head, I have had no communication from UGA or the University system,” Bernstein said. “The communications that I have received from colleagues, both from my department and from elsewhere, have been supportive. None of the students have contacted me. Former students who saw the reports, have been supportive. My family has been supportive. I have received some negative responses from people that I do not know but who saw the media reports. Some are very vigorous (laced with profanities) in denouncing me for depriving the student of her ‘freedom.’”

UGA’s Director for Integrated Media Communications, Rod Guajardo.

UGA spokesperson Rod Guajardo told the AJT: “All students affected by the resignation of this instructor were moved to a new section of their courses and will continue in their studies as expected.” Guajardo said that while “USG does not allow its institutions to enact mask or vaccine mandates,” UGA has offered incentives, including cash prizes, to boost vaccination rates.

The AJT has sought, but at this writing not received, comment from USG. At least three faculty members in the 26-school system have resigned in the new academic year because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I have, literally, been receiving comments from all over the English-speaking world and from colleagues, friends and former students whose first language is not English. One positive outcome has been that I am once again in contact with many people that I had lost contact with,” Bernstein said. “I have also heard from colleagues who are less fortunate than I in that their institution has mandated in person classes and forbidden them to teach online. Whereas they need to work to support themselves and their families, I was in a position where I could just walk away.”

Bernstein, who described himself as a “Jew by culture and ethnicity,” also addressed the broader controversy over COVID-19 vaccines. “No one objects to the fact that we do require DPT [diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus] and measles vaccinations to go to school, but somehow COVID is different,” he told the AJT. “Some of the negative responses that I received said that since some vaccinated people have contracted COVID that vaccinations are useless. Moreover, since some people have had bad reactions on being vaccinated, that the vaccinations are dangerous and to be avoided. That since masking will not provide 100% protection, it is useless. That since only a small percent of people contracting COVID die, that COVID is nothing more than something like a cold. These are clearly (to me) flawed arguments and seem to be used as such knowingly.

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