Staff Editorial: Mask-optional policy has AU community feeling whiplash of COVID-19 decision-making
‘Community of care’ starts with us
The American University administration recently announced that the University is lifting its mask mandate starting this week. According to an email by President Sylvia Burwell to the AU community, masks will be optional in most on-campus locations, such as classrooms, residence halls and dining facilities.
This change in coronavirus protocol is due to updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and D.C. Health guidelines, which state that with current high levels of vaccination and population immunity, the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 is greatly reduced for most people. What the CDC also mentions that the administration has left out is that community-level prevention strategies should ensure equity and support for disproportionately affected populations.
If the University had followed CDC guidelines throughout the pandemic, at least this decision could have been expected. This was a sudden change in position surrounding masks, following advocacy for mandating KN95 and N95 masks and ordering a new batch of them last month. Undergoing stages in lifting the mandate and allowing for the use of surgical and cloth masks would’ve allowed ease for disadvantaged groups within the AU community.
With the mask-optional policy releasing not too long after spring break, it’s unreliable to solely rely on local transmission rates when a number of students have traveled globally. In addition to a surge of a new Omicron strain in Europe and China, in which one of the countries is enduring a lockdown, it brings into question what the benefits are in ending a mask mandate.
We acknowledge that transmission within the district and the AU community is low enough to not require masking in public places, however, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the certain communities that will have extreme discomfort with this policy.
This week, the University reported 65 new COVID-19 cases in the AU community. D.C.’s 7-day average is 93.7 cases. AU reports campus COVID-19 cases to the D.C. Department of Health, but The Eagle has not been able to confirm how these numbers factor into D.C.’s reported cases.
Within President Burwell’s email, it mentioned respecting community members who may request to wear a mask around them if an individual is in close proximity to them. While this is a comforting note, it places the burden on students to go out of their comfort zone to ask others to wear a mask, which will likely result in unfriendly responses. For disabled and immunocompromised students, AU’s policy may force some to decide between acquiring an education and risking their health.
Professors must also make the moral choice on whether to request masking within their classrooms and lab spaces. It’s an interesting parallel from Georgetown University’s mask-optional protocols, which states that everyone has a “right” to decline a request to wear a mask and will face no corrective or disciplinary measures. The decision made by the instructor would likely cause a disruption in class because of the divide of students that decide to wear a mask or not. Are we prepared to prove asynchronous options to those concerned for their health?
The concept of “community of care” also needs to be upheld by the actual AU community itself, not just the administration. If cases go back up in spite of the Omicron strain, will there be a willingness to immediately return to a mask mandate?
While some members in the AU community may celebrate the end of the mask mandate, it is still important to be sympathetic to those who have different experiences and to act in the best interests of themselves and the broader community. As a university of self-proclaimed “changemakers,” we must be motivated by a genuine and heartfelt desire to make our community a welcoming, livable place.
Community response to The Eagle’s reporting of the mask mandate on social media is an interesting study in how this policy may play out. With over 400 comments, The Eagle’s online team had to make the decision to limit comments on our Instagram account following an influx of now-deleted antisemitic, racist, homophobic and otherwise offensive comments.
As students, we must remember that this community of care begins with us.