Circulating photo of Sylvia Burwell unmasked at fundraising event was taken outside, officials confirm

Social media post sparks student outcry

Circulating photo of Sylvia Burwell unmasked at fundraising event was taken outside, officials confirm
President Sylvia Burwell and Alphonso Jackson, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, photographed outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel without masks at the Change Can't Wait campaign event in Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Students expressed frustration on social media after President Sylvia Burwell was photographed unmasked outdoors alongside officials and American University student representatives at a fundraising campaign reception Feb. 10.

The photo shows Burwell and Alphonso Jackson, former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In the photo, Burwell appeared to have a KN95 mask around her wrist.

The Instagram account @stoolamerican posted the photo, which received nearly two thousand likes and dozens of comments from students criticizing Burwell. The post did not clarify whether the event took place outdoors.

“The next time a professor makes you step out of class to drink water, show this photo and stay put,” the top comment on the post, written by sophomore Jada Barrett, reads.

University spokesperson Elizabeth Deal told The Eagle in an email the photo was taken during the reception portion of the event, which took place outdoors.

“The event was in compliance with all local and University protocols,” Deal wrote.

Masks are required at both on- and off-campus indoor events for all guests regardless of vaccination status and “may be removed when eating or drinking during an event,” per AU event health and safety requirements. There is no University mask requirement for outdoor events.

Christine Belleris, an AU parent who attended the event and took the photo, shared the photo in a parent Facebook group on Feb. 12. 

“The reception part of the event was outside on a balcony, in the open air,” Belleris said, in reference to the photo. “Since it’s south Florida, it was warm, we were without coats, maybe it looked like we were inside when the photo was cropped, but we were outside.”

Belleris said the event organizers provided KN95 masks, which all guests wore for the duration of the indoor event, except for the various speakers at the dais. The guests sufficiently followed the mask mandate, she said.

“I have great respect for Burwell,” Belleris said. “I never once felt uncomfortable.”

Owen Rosenberg, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, said his dad texted him the photo he saw in the Facebook group Sunday. Rosenberg said he shared the photo on his personal account before @stoolamerican asked to post it.

“Something like this should be public,” said Rosenberg. “With all of the increasingly restrictive measures that AU implemented … seeing the president of the University possibly not adhering to those same measures that she signed off on is something that deserves to be in the public eye.”

Rosenberg said he thinks the University administration should roll back some COVID-19 restrictions, like the ban on eating and drinking in the classroom.

“If she feels safe enough to [be unmasked] in what I assume is a crowd larger than 25, I personally feel safe,” said Rosenberg. “ … At the very least, we should be able to sip water in class.”

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Jackson as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He is the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development. An incorrect attribution to a University spokesperson has been removed.

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