Students and faculty reflect on the evolution of masking on campus this semester
A look at how some community members feel about lifting the mask mandate in classrooms
After American University moved to make masks optional in classrooms as of Sept. 26, the new policy has caused a range of reactions among students and faculty.
According to University spokesperson Jasmine Pelaez, the decision to remove the mask requirement was based on feedback from the first few weeks of classes and a high vaccination rate among the AU community.
“We have achieved notably high vaccination rates of approximately 98 percent,” Pelaez said in an email to The Eagle. “We continue to adjust our health and safety protocols for the community, as we enter into the endemic phase of COVID-19."
This shift from pandemic to endemic is why Kathleen Holton, an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences, said she thinks lifting the mask requirement was the right move. Holton said the coronavirus is following a similar pattern to many other endemic diseases.
“It’s in the virus’ best interest to be more communicable, meaning easier to spread, but less virulent, meaning it doesn’t kill its host as easily because the virus needs a host to survive,” Holton said.
Holton also serves as an at-large representative on the Faculty Senate, where she heard reports of noncompliance in classrooms prior to the policy update. She said some professors in the Senate received pushback from students who found the former masking policy too inconsistent.
“Students were aware that masking was stopping in other locations,” Holton said. “I can tell you students in my class — I teach on infectious disease — and they realize that that’s silly because you either want a masking policy where your people are masking everywhere, or you don’t really need to wear a mask.”
Alexandra Mislin, a professor in the Kogod School of Business, said she felt somewhat uncomfortable asking students to mask who were unaware of the policy or disagreed with it.
“I was just trying to follow through so students could comfortably feel like the rule was being followed if that was important to them,” Mislin said.
Mislin said she anticipated that the policy would change at some point during the fall semester.
“They were probably, I was assuming, just trying to get off to a smooth start,” Mislin said. “And I would imagine it's possible that it could change again.”
Milo Stroik, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said he is in favor of the updated policy.
“I think so much of language and communication involves conveying and reading emotions through facial expression … I think wearing a mask really hinders that, which can be really important in education,” Stroik said.
Beck Hassen, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs, said his learning experience has been positively impacted since the requirement was lifted.
“It's much easier to learn,” Hassen said. “It feels less like we’re just kind of blending in, like we’re actually our own people.”
For some students, however, lifting the mandate presented a risk to their personal health and well-being on campus.
Polina Shagin, a senior in the School of International Service, said removing the mandate has disrupted their learning and increased their worries about getting sick. Shagin is immunocompromised and said the updated policy makes them feel unvalued by the University.
“There was one thing of not having a mandate in the libraries or the cafés or outside because these are places that can be avoided by those who are immunocompromised but class … everyone is there to learn,” Shagin said.
The updated mask guidelines took effect on the last day students could withdraw from fall courses and receive a partial refund. Shagin said this gave immunocompromised students no choice but to remain in classes where they potentially feel unsafe.
“It comes down to a point of equity,” Shagin said. “Why is it that one person is able to get an education without worrying about their health and another person has to make that decision of, do I compromise my health or do I compromise my education?”
Hassen said he was unhappy when the University announced in August that it would require masks in classrooms at the beginning of the academic year and did not understand why the policy changed from what it had been over the summer. According to a May press release, masks were only required in classrooms during the first week of summer instruction.
“That might have taken the cake for the most nonsensical thing they’ve done this whole pandemic,” Hassen said. “Basically in the fall they switched it and I don’t see exactly what that does because then you just walk outside the classroom and everyone takes it off.”
Hassen said he believes the student body has learned enough in the past two years to make informed decisions about when to mask.
“I was actually sick when they made the announcement, so on the first day of mask-optional [classes] I did wear one and now I am feeling better,” Hassen said.
Both Hassen and Holton said the normalization of self-masking is a silver lining of the pandemic.
“We’ve kind of had a change in social norms in a positive way where masking is acceptable, which is nice, because now individuals can choose that,” Holton said. “Anyone who’s concerned about viral transmission, they definitely should still mask and we will probably have students who choose to mask.”
But not everyone thinks social norms have changed so significantly. Shagin said they do not see many students self-masking and notice less observation of health and safety practices, such as covering coughs and sneezes.
“I feel like a lot of people aren’t being as cautious anymore at all, even if they’re sick without COVID and getting sick with anything is [going to] affect my immune system and my health,” Shagin said.
In the Sept. 21 email announcing the updated classroom mask guidelines, Provost Peter Starr said AU “is committed to respecting and supporting one another’s choices” and asked that students give full consideration to requests from others to mask.
Shagin said they think it is necessary to call on AU students to be aware of the situations of the people around them.
“It takes two seconds for you to wear a mask,” Shagin said. “And it might feel uncomfortable but it's much more uncomfortable for a person who has to sit there knowing that attending class can potentially cost them their life or their health.”