Courtesy of Irwin Bernstein
A longtime professor chose his health over his career this month after a student reportedly refused to properly wear a mask during one of his classes.
Irwin Bernstein stepped down from his retired professor position at the University of Georgia on Aug. 24 after an unnamed student entered his class without a face mask, according to the school’s independent, student-run newspaper, Red & Black.
The case has been shown to help slow the spread of COVID-19, which has infected millions around the world since the beginning of last year.
Bernstein told Red & Black that he asked the student to get a replacement face mask from the counseling office, but she got one from a classmate instead. The 88-year-old professor then stated that he had health problems that made him particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, such as type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
Despite his pleas, the student refused to wear the face mask properly – decided to keep it under her nose – prompting Bernstein to announce his retirement in front of the class.
“The student told me the mask was uncomfortable and took it off,” said Bernstein, an Air Force veteran, in a statement to PEOPLE. “I was not comfortable staying in the room with an unmasked student and telling them that and that I was going to retire and go.”
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University of Georgia campus
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While the student claimed she had difficulty breathing with a face mask, Bernstein – who has four asthmatic children – says he did not see any “signs of breathlessness” in the student.
“If she had told me that, I would have tried to solve her problem,” he says.
Bernstein says he has received “profane” and “disturbing” emails since the incident from people who disagree with his actions, but the support he has received has been invaluable.
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“I have heard from many former students and colleagues and acquaintances that I was happy about their support. In fact, one of the positive results of it is that I have contact with them again,” he says.
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After his sudden resignation, students in Bernstein’s class were moved to a new section of the course, Greg Trevor, vice president of marketing & communications, told PEOPLE in a statement.
“The University of Georgia is doing everything in its power to protect the health, safety and well-being of our community,” the statement said. “The university is part of a university system and must follow instructions from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. The USG does not allow its institutions to impose mask or vaccination regulations.”
“However, vaccines and face coverings are highly recommended, and the UGA has plenty of motivational incentives,” explains Trevor, adding that the university provides free vaccines and masks and free COVID-19 tests on campus.
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Bernstein says he will now be spending most of his time at home and has no plans to look for another job. He said he had no financial needs and agreed to accept less than a quarter of the rate he received before retirement.
While Bernstein no longer has to risk his health in a classroom during the ongoing pandemic, he is discouraged at how his time at university came to an end.
“The whole incident is sad. Unfortunately, a public health issue has become a political issue,” he says.
“Covid can only be a mild illness for young healthy people,” he adds, “but old people with comorbidities like me are really at risk if infected.”
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