An 88-year-old professor at the University of Georgia has quit after a student refused to properly wear a mask in his psychology class.
Irwin Bernstein, a retiree-rehire professor, told one student who arrived without a face cover on Aug. 24 to get one from the advising office, the college student paper The Red & Black reported.
A classmate handed the unnamed student a mask instead, but she did not wear it over her nose, according to the outlet.
When the octogenarian educator asked her to wear it properly, she said she “couldn’t breathe” and “had a really hard time breathing” with the mask over her nose.
The professor told the news outlet that he informed the student that he could die from COVID-19 due to his underlying health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure and age-related problems.
Bernstein, who had already learned that two of his absent students tested positive for the virus, announced his resignation, writing “no mask, no class” on the chalkboard, and left the class after the young woman ignored his request again.
“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 told The Red & Black in an email.
“Resignation was an all or none decision … I felt some relief as I had been getting more concerned as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in recent weeks,” Bernstein said.
Fourth-year student Hannah Huff, who tweeted about the incident, said she remained seated in stunned silence – and in anger – as the class tried to understand what had just happened.
“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,” Huff told the student paper, adding that some students told the recalcitrant student that they needed the class to graduate.
“Well, this is a blessing in disguise,” the student responded, according to Huff.
“She’s talking about some ‘blessing in disguise’ crap like ma’am I’m just trying to graduate,” Huff wrote on Twitter.
All of the students affected by Bernstein’s resignation have been transferred to a new section of their courses, UGA rep Greg Trevor told the news outlet.
“This is not what I signed up for. This was not my original plan for my final semester here. It’s heartbreaking. It’s surreal,” Huff said.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ There was definitely hidden hostility in that room, and I do feel a little bit of anger toward this girl, but mainly agitation,” she added.
Bernstein, who began teaching part-time at UGA in 1968, became a full-time faculty member in 1971 and retired in 2011 – although he still taught as a part-time retiree-rehire for many years.
His former psychology department asked him to return to teach two courses this semester, but he won’t teach either after the mask dispute.
Bernstein told The Red & Black that the department head said he could not enforce a mask policy upon his students.
The school follows the policies of the University System of Georgia, which only encourages mask use inside campus facilities.
“I am sorry that the pandemic has caused so much dissension. I personally do not agree that stimulating the economy is more important than people’s lives and am disappointed that some people feel that it is,” Bernstein told the paper.