ATLANTA — University System of Georgia Chancellor Steve Wrigley on Tuesday defended his decision to bring students back to the system’s 26 campuses this semester for in-person classes.

While some campuses – notably the University of Georgia — have reported large numbers of new coronavirus cases, most were mild or without symptoms, Wrigley told members of the system’s Board of Regents. Those new cases have started to come down in recent days, he said.

“We said all summer this would be different,” Wrigley said of re-opening public university campuses across Georgia. “It is challenging … [but] we have become fluent in the language of the pandemic.”

Wrigley blamed the increase in new COVID-19 cases on large off-campus gatherings of students. A video of a packed gathering of University of North Georgia students in Dahlonega last month at a party the day before school started went viral.

Since the early days of the semester, students have shown great leadership tamping down those kinds of gatherings and following other safety guidelines including wearing masks, the chancellor said.

“We need to remain vigilant,” he said. “It’s a long semester. COVID-19 thrives on concentration and carelessness.”

Like the state’s K-12 school system, the university system shut down classrooms last March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Georgia. The schools completed the spring semester online.

The decision over the summer to resume in-person instruction drew widespread criticism from students and teachers worried about spreading COVID-19.

Wrigley reiterated Tuesday that the decision was based on the inherent advantages of the on-campus experience compared to virtual learning.

“We believe strongly in the richness it adds to education and overall student enrichment,” Wrigley said. “We will stay the course.”

In other business Tuesday, the regents adopted a request for $2.4 billion in state funding for the next fiscal year, which starts next July.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget told state agencies not to ask for more money next year, citing the pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy, Tracey Cook, the system’s executive vice chancellor for strategy and fiscal affairs, said.

However, the university system was permitted to seek a net increase of $61.5 million, primarily to cover projected student enrollment growth, Cook said.

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