Gustavus updates masking rules

Mel Pardock and Kendra Smaby – Staff Writers

Masking has been an almost omnipresent feature of our lives for the last two years. As vaccines became available, restrictions lightened up over Summer 2021 and we were given a taste of what a post COVID-19 world could look like, but with the onset of the Delta variant we were clapped right back into 2020. Now after a plethora of variants, it seems that the pandemic may finally be coming to a close. A key component of reading the pulse of the pandemic is the presence of masking. Throughout the 2020-2021 academic school year Gustavus maintained full level three masking protocol. This was carried into the Fall of the 2021-2022 school year with the exception of a couple of weeks spent in level two. This semester the guidelines have started to lighten up.
As of Monday March 7, Gustavus administrators have put new masking policies into effect. In an email sent to the GAC community by the Office of Marketing and Communication on Tuesday March 1, the policies of the new masking mandate, which declared the campus to be at masking level 1, were described in detail.
“During classes: Faculty may choose to require masks to be worn during class time. Students are expected to mask in classes that have a masking requirement. Faculty will notify their classes about masking requirements. Individual offices or departments: Masks may be required in specific locations on campus and will be indicated by a sign,” the email said.
To try to understand a little more about what allows us to lessen masking restrictions at this point in time, I reached out to Barb Larson Taylor. The first myth that she wanted to address is that the masking restrictions were lightened because of student pushback and non-compliance. “The changes did not happen because some people no longer want to wear a mask or are choosing to not be compliant with the masking policy,” Taylor said.
Instead, there are a variety of factors that are taken into account when deciding whether masks are required in order to create a safe learning environments for both students and staff. Campus has used three main criteria to make these decisions according to Taylor: the number of cases on campus, the number of hospitalizations from COVID and the availability of hospital beds, and the CDC county transmission levels. “We moved the masking level now because COVID hospitalizations have dropped and there is good bed availability. We are hopeful that with the new CDC Community levels the county level will move lower. This would mean we could loosen masking requirements on campus even further,” Taylor said.
Gusties, of course, had questions. What guidelines were taken into account when making this decision? What prompted administrators to lessen the mask mandate?
“Here are all the other factors that we considered: currently 90% of the campus community is up to date (boosted) or in their initial vaccine window (not eligible to be boosted), …current data indicates that KN95 or N95 masks are readily available for general population use and are highly effective in preventing the contracting or spreading of COVID-19 if worn properly over the mouth and nose, …and these changes have been made in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health in February 2022,” Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communication in Marketing and Communication Barb Larson Taylor said.
This is the most lenient masking policy Gusties have experienced up to date in quite some time. Rather than following a mandate extended to all people on campus, including visitors, Gusties can make their own choices regarding masking. This is welcome news to some, but others are still rather wary.
“I don’t have much to say about masking guidelines, if we’re following CDC guidelines as a college then I trust what GAC decides to do. However, the communication on how masking is left up to professors’ discretion has proven to be a problem in many of my classes…” Junior Anna Lundeen said.
“After one of my professors disclosed to our class that they have an immunodeficient family member at home and would prefer to stay masked as we’ve had three positive cases in the class, many students continued to stay unmasked or wear their mask improperly. I also find it interesting which departments have continued to require masks (many science departments) and those who haven’t. The discrepancy between the first and second floors of Beck (econ vs. psych) right now is funny,” Lundeen said.
While there has been a lot of discussion about mask wearing in classrooms and academic buildings, some are still concerned about masking elsewhere on campus.
“I do worry about the requirement for masking at indoor sporting events. Masks are required, but at the events I’ve attended there’s been neglect for enforcement of the masking policy. It’s especially important to be masked at these events because of the contact students have with spectators from outside of the campus community,” First-yearLinnea Howiesaid.
Student choice whether to wear masks and opinions on the new masking policies have become very divisive. Many people are willing to share their opinions, but don’t want to be judged harshly for them. This speaks to the larger politicization of masking as a whole. Different students have had different familial experiences with the pandemic and thus may have different comfortability.
“I know of a lot of people that are still uncomfortable with the idea of no masks, which is OK. Maybe something like an anonymous campus-wide vote on masks in non-academic buildings? Just to see how many people are uncomfortable with the idea of no masks. It is more about the students’ comfort in the end, when cases are low enough to have a choice,” First-year Emily McKay said.
The availability of KN95 masks allows those who do not feel comfortable to mask with a highly protective mask. Whether choosing to mask or not, Gusties are all just trying to navigate this new step in the pandemic.