Reversing 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 case counts low. In the latest pivot, some colleges are reinstating mask mandates—just as coronavirus cases begin to increase on campus.

    Over the last week, colleges across the country—including American University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; 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 vaccine and booster mandates.

    The reversal comes amid changing public policies nationwide. Many cities are dropping mask mandates, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently rolled back recommendations to wear face coverings indoors, at least among those living in areas designated low to medium risk according to local data. For example, Washington, D.C., dropped its indoor mask mandate on March 1, but American and Georgetown have reintroduced their own requirements.

    The Spring Break Factor

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

    “Many of these colleges had spring break about two weeks ago. And there are some that are just having 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 rolling surges that will hit certain colleges based on their spring break schedule, or based on any unmasked, unvaccinated indoor events.”

    Some colleges have made a direct link between spring break and revived mask mandates.

    “In response to travel-related COVID cases among undergraduates after Spring Break, we last week reinstated limited aspects of the campus precautions originally lifted in March: required masking in common areas of residence halls and dining facilities, and twice-weekly testing for undergraduate students,” Jill Rosen, a spokesperson for Johns Hopkins University, said by email.

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

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

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

    “When everyone’s coming back to campus after traveling, maybe that’s when you dial up the masking requirements indoors until you know that you’re not going to see a large increase,” Dr. Malani said. “And that may be the case in the fall. It’s very difficult to know how fall will look.”

    Beyond masking, colleges are taking actions like hitting pause on large events, reducing capacity in some common areas—such as dining halls—and urging general pandemic precautions.

    “Large 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 this evening with college magisters and student presidents to discuss modifications to events and event planning for the remainder of the semester in the colleges. Students should look for updates from college leaders. Students can continue to eat indoors in college commons and surrounding areas, but at half the designated occupancy.”

    Rice’s coronavirus dashboard shows 111 positive tests in the past seven days and a noticeable upward trajectory for early April.

    Given that some colleges canceled in-person instruction for much of 2020, Dr. Michael McNeil, chief of administration for Columbia Health, said reintroducing mask mandates is about keeping students where they want to be and not losing progress made during the pandemic.

    “If there is a bit of an uptick, we’re not going to overreact, but we want to be responsive,” McNeil said. “We’re not going to ignore this uptick, especially because we’re staying in that green zone. But we want students in the classroom, students want to be in the classroom; this is a step to help support that.”

    Reinstating mask mandates is also about reaching the end of the semester, which is on the horizon.

    “We are focused on helping the AU community stay healthy, limit isolation, and maintain their academic and professional pursuits,” Matthew Bennet, a spokesperson for American University, said by email. “The mask requirement resumed to support our community of care and help students, faculty, and staff successfully and safely complete the semester as we approach the conclusion of classes, the exam period, and our commencement celebrations.”

    Looking Ahead

    For most colleges, the end of the academic year is in sight. But the end of the pandemic? Not so much.

    Taylor notes that the pandemic seemed to be easing up last year, and then the Omicron and Delta variants arrived, introducing a surge in coronavirus cases. Though 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 ups and downs from COVID,” Taylor said. “I’m optimistic for this spring and summer. I’m more concerned about the fall, when we go back indoors. I think at certain periods in the next year, we’re going to have to pull out those masks again.”

    While colleges don’t have much in the way of certainty, they do have an arsenal of tools at their disposal. Dr. Malani points to vaccine and booster requirements and robust testing as ways that colleges can keep case counts down. Using such tools can help universities establish policies that allow students to stay safe in the classroom while also enjoying their college experience. After all, COVID-19 isn’t the only health concern—there’s also a student mental health crisis.

    “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’re thinking about COVID risk, I hope we’re thinking about all other risks, whether it’s loneliness and isolation, it’s substance use, other high-risk behavior, or academic concerns.”

    Despite the return of mask mandates, some experts point to positive momentum since the onset of COVID-19. Though the future of the pandemic is unknown, the tools to battle 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 to and be responsive to our populations, and if we continue to act individually and collectively, we can see our campuses through to the other side,” Dr. McNeil said. “We, of course, don’t have a crystal ball and can’t tell exactly what that’s going to look like or when that’s going to happen. But I think we can get there, and we’re certainly on the right path.”

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