Masks in America’s Universities and Public Schools
COVID-19 has been a source of great stress for governments and individual households worldwide since early 2020. America’s schools and universities have worked to balance education and the health of millions of students and faculty by first responding to the pandemic with nearly a year of a complete shutdown and a transition to remote learning. As schools reopened after the shutdown, mask mandates on campus became a part of the new normal under the pandemic. With a large influence from state governments, the 2021-2022 school year has seen a move away from mandatory masking in most spaces across America's campuses. Administrators also look to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College Health Association for guidelines and recommendations regarding mask mandates, which have recently been loosened nationwide.
Universities had varying approaches to loosening mask mandates throughout this academic year as most institutions house hundreds or thousands of students on campus. During the pandemic, mask mandates played a significant role in campus safety. However, in February and March 2022, many universities followed state governments in loosening mask mandates. Nevada, New York, and Oregon, for example, are a few of many states that loosened mask restrictions in February. The CDC also updated its COVID-19 guidelines for higher education institutions in February to suggest institutions in low or medium risk areas reduce their mask mandates for both outdoor and indoor venues, with a few expectations for high-risk individuals. The CDC recommended universities in high-risk areas keep mask mandates for indoor venues. In response to the CDC, the ACHA emphasized that changes in mask mandates result from current declines in severe COVID-19 infections and are subject to change. Co-chair of the ACHA’s COVID-19 Task Force, Anita Barkin, advised administrators to ensure their students understand universities "may have to re-institute those requirements if necessary." Many universities have not abandoned masks completely, including Boston University. The school still requires students to wear masks in classes, on university buses, and in healthcare facilities.
Some students and faculty pushed back against loosening mask mandates, including individuals who might be at high risk of infection, arguing that reducing masks would leave them more vulnerable to infection. Co-chair of the ACHA’s COVID-19 Task Force, Gerri Taylor, expressed suspicion about de-masking in early February.
“I think it’s premature to remove the mask requirement at this point in time,” said Taylor.
Taylor found that the new metrics by which the CDC had been measuring risk - by the number of severe cases or strain on local healthcare systems instead of the number of infections - might not accurately reflect a county’s situation. In response to concerns, university administrators pointed to their institutions' other precautions. Regular testing and required, or at least strongly suggested, COVID-19 vaccinations remain a norm at many universities to monitor cases and ensure everyone’s safety. Most universities still decided to loosen their mask mandates and have managed to keep cases down.
Public schools also saw changes in mask mandates following similar announcements from their state governments. Parents are left to decide if they want their children to mask up. Many students have readily accepted the end of mandatory masking. They are excited to see others’ faces, sometimes for the first time, but some believe schools are not entirely ready to loosen restrictions. A pair of Yale medical experts expressed their opinion that lifting restrictions are more out of political interest than public health.
“Why now? Why this moment? That's pure politics. It is just executive orders expiring,” said Dr. Jaimie Meyer.
Dr. Eugene Shapiro pointed to the high levels of unpredictability recurring throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is just so much uncertainty, and what is right this week might not be right next week,” said Dr. Eugene Shapiro
Dr. Meyer grapples with the variability by arguing regulations should work like a dial instead of a switch. If cases increase, the dial turns up, and regulations get more strict. If cases are low, the dial can be turned down and restrictions loosened. Despite some concern about the timing of restriction changes, every state has lifted school mask mandates as of March 26, with Hawaii being the last.
With state and school mask mandates being lifted across the country, individuals can now decide if they wish to mask up. When deciding whether to do so, Dr. Meyer suggests assessing individualized risk. If an individual or people in their immediate household have “an underlying health condition that puts them at risk for severe disease—[they’re] going to have to take extra precautions.” She also acknowledges that “as more and more people are vaccinated and immune, and as we head into [warmer] weather, we can open windows and be outside. I think when all of this happens, those extra measures with masks will become less and less important.”