Reverse course on COVID-19 mask mandates

Two years into the pandemic, colleges are still fine-tuning their COVID-19 mitigation policies, changing course as needed to keep students safe and low case numbers. In the latest pivot, some colleges are reinstating mask mandates just as coronavirus cases begin to rise on campus.

Over the past week, colleges across the country, including American University and Georgetown University in Washington, DC; Columbia University in New York; and Rice University in Texas, to name a few, have reinstated mask mandates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Many of the colleges making such changes already have vaccination and booster mandates.

The reversal comes amid shifting public policy nationwide. Many cities are dropping mask mandates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently canceled recommendations to wear a face covering indoors, at least among those who live in areas designated as low to medium risk according to local data. For example, Washington, DC dropped its indoor mask mandate on March 1, but American and Georgetown have reintroduced their own requirements.

The Spring Break Factor

The spike in COVID-19 cases in colleges comes, for some, on the heels of spring break.

“A lot of these colleges had spring break about two weeks ago. And there are some who just have it now,” said Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. “I think we’re going to see some rolling waves hitting some colleges depending on their spring break schedule, or depending on any unmasked, unvaccinated indoor event.”

Some colleges have directly linked spring break to revived mask mandates.

“In response to travel-related COVID cases among undergraduate students after spring break, we last week reinstated limited aspects of campus precautions originally lifted in March: mandatory masking in common areas of residence halls and restaurants, and bi-weekly testing for undergraduates,” Johns Hopkins University spokesperson Jill Rosen said via email.

While some colleges are reintroducing mask mandates, others are keeping them optional. The University of Michigan, for example, made masking optional in March, weeks after its spring break, although face coverings are required in classrooms and some other spaces.

University officials noted that the rise in cases — which jumped the week of April 4 and then leveled off, according to Michigan COVID Dashboard— is linked to large indoor gatherings.

Michigan health officer Dr. Preeti Malani now compares coronavirus mitigation measures to a dial, whereas before vaccinations they were more like switches that colleges turned on or off. But with years of data and experience in managing the pandemic, officials are more confident in their ability to make targeted strategic changes rather than instituting sweeping mandates.

“When everyone comes back to campus after traveling, maybe that’s when you dial in the requirements to hide indoors until you know you’re not going to see a sharp increase,” Dr Malani said. “And that may be the case in the fall. It is very difficult to know what the fall will look like.

Beyond masking, colleges are taking measures such as pausing large events, reducing capacity in some common areas — such as dining halls — and urging general pandemic precautions.

“Major college parties are canceled this weekend,” Kevin Kirby, vice president of administration at Rice University, said in a message to faculty, staff and students last week. “The Dean of Undergraduates is meeting with college magisters and student presidents tonight to discuss event changes and event planning for the remainder of the semester at colleges. Students should seek updates from college leaders. Students may continue to eat indoors in the college commons and surrounding areas, but at half designated occupancy.

Rice coronavirus dashboard shows 111 positive tests over the past seven days and a notable upward trajectory for early April.

Since some colleges have canceled in-person instruction for much of 2020, Dr. Michael McNeil, chief administrative officer of Columbia Health, said reintroducing mask mandates is about keeping students where they are. want to be and not to lose the progress made during the pandemic.

“If there’s a slight uptick, we’re not going to overreact, but we want to be responsive,” McNeil said. “We are not going to ignore this increase, in particular because we remain in this green zone. But we want students in the classroom, students want to be in the classroom; this is a step to help support that.

Restoring mask mandates also means reaching the end of the semester, which is looming on the horizon.

“We are working to help the AU community stay healthy, limit isolation, and maintain academic and professional pursuits,” American spokesperson Matthew Bennett said via email. University. “The mask requirement has resumed to support our community of care and help students, faculty and staff complete the semester successfully and safely as we approach the end of classes, exam period and of our commencement celebrations.”

Look forward

For most colleges, the end of the school year is in sight. But the end of the pandemic? Not really.

Taylor notes that the pandemic seemed to be easing last year, and then the Omicron and Delta variants arrived, introducing an increase in coronavirus cases. While colleges have reason to be optimistic, she said, that should be balanced with heavy doses of vigilance and caution.

“I think we’re going to continue to see COVID ups and downs,” Taylor said. “I am optimistic for this spring and summer. I’m more concerned about the fall, when you get inside. I think at certain times next year we will have to remove these masks again.

Although colleges don’t have much certainty, they do have an arsenal of tools. Malani points to vaccine and booster requirements and robust testing as ways for colleges to reduce case numbers. Using such tools can help universities establish policies that allow students to stay safe in the classroom while enjoying their college experience. After all, COVID-19 isn’t the only health issue – there’s also a mental health crisis among students.

“If you think about the risk of COVID versus the risk of isolation and mental health issues, you can manage the risk of COVID. And I think that’s the difference between 2020 and now,” Dr Malani said. “As we think about the risk of COVID, I hope we think about all the other risks, whether it’s loneliness and isolation, substance use, other high-risk behaviors or problems academics.”

Despite the return of mask mandates, some experts point to positive momentum since the start of COVID-19. Although the future of the pandemic is unknown, the tools to fight it are in hand.

“If we continue to do what we know, which is to use empirical evidence to inform our decision-making, if we continue to listen and respond to our people, and if we continue to act individually and collectively we can see our campuses all the way to the other side,” Dr. McNeil said. is going to happen. But I think we can get there, and we’re definitely on the right track.

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