Irwin Bernstein, a University of Georgia professor, made clear he was not willing to make exceptions to his policy that masks were mandatory in his class. “No mask, no class,” he wrote on the board. When one student refused to put one on properly, the professor resigned. Bernstein, an 88-year-old who had come out of retirement to start teaching again, had told students masks were mandatory in his class because he was at higher risk from COVID-19 due to his age and underlying medical conditions. On the first day of class, everyone complied. On the second day, a student who hadn’t been to the first class arrived without a mask.
The student was asked to put on a mask and a fellow student gave her one but she refused to wear it over her nose, claiming she couldn’t breathe. The student proceeded to to ignore Bernstein when he continued to ask her to put on the mask correctly so he could continue teaching the psychology seminar. That is when Bernstein stopped pleading and announced he was resigning and left the class.
“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,” Bernstein said in an email to the Red & Black, the university’s newspaper. “I then resigned my retiree-rehire position.” Bernstein had retired in 2011 and taught part time. “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,” a student said. Bernstein said it was a bit of a relief to make the decision to resign because he “had been getting more concerned as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in recent weeks.” The University of Georgia follows the same polices as those of the University System of Georgia, which strongly encourages masks but doesn’t allow mask or vaccine mandates.
Bernstein is not the first professor in Georgia to quit after disagreements over masks. Meridith Styer resigned from the Georgia College & State University earlier this month after a conflict with a student over masks. She had asked students at a rhetoric class to wear masks because she had a family member for whom COVID-19 could prove fatal. One student refused and went to tell the dean. “When it became clear that the university was going to seek ‘both sides’ instead of supporting me, I decided my chosen side was to resign,” Styer told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The media outlet said it had been “hearing from unhappy faculty” daily about the lack of masks on campuses. “I am in the privileged position of being able to pay my bills even after resigning my job,” Styer said. “The policies the USG has enacted will continue to cause faculty to leave. I’m able to do so now, but many many more are looking to do the same thing.”