In an email sent to students on Monday, Feb. 14, Fairfield University President Mark R. Nemec, Ph. D. communicated a campus-wide switch from a “mask requirement” to a “mask recommendation” effective on Monday, Feb. 28.
For some, this may seem like the end of a long road. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, masks have been a mainstay in regular life.
Although the pandemic has had a continuous presence around the world, state-level restrictions around the country have been easing. According to the official online portal for the State of Connecticut, Governor Ned Lamont announced on Feb. 7, 2022 that mask-wearing would no longer be mandated in schools, instead leaving the decision to be made at the local level.
Some students have shared their excitement towards the mandate lifting.
Junior Jake Cartisano told The Mirror that he has not yet had a professor express that they will still require masks in the classroom.
“In fact, I’ve only heard positive outlooks regarding the new mask policy from my teaching superiors, and I can’t agree more,” Cartisano said. “Covid cases are low and the overwhelming majority of our campus is fully vaccinated.”
Junior Nursing major Anna Mercurio explained that she was “surprised, but also relieved that we’ve gotten to a place where we no longer have to wear masks.”
Only two of her professors are still requiring students to wear masks — one of which is a nursing class.
Since March of 2020, Fairfield University has undertaken multiple strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Testing and vaccine clinics were hosted in the RecPlex field house, contact tracing was in full effect and mask wearing was required and enforced in every space on campus.
In the summer of 2021, the University announced for the first time that masks would no longer be required while on campus. However, this was short lived, as they reversed the rule for the beginning of this current school year; they did announce later on that masks would no longer have to be worn outdoors.
In a supplemental email from the Office of the Dean of Students on Wednesday, Feb. 23, Dean of Students William H. Johnson clarified some ambiguous points from the first email.
“Generally speaking, individuals will no longer be required to wear a mask in facilities such as the Rec Plex, the BCC, or in University housing,” Johnson’s email reads.
His second point spoke to a different sentiment. There are still students and faculty who may prefer mask-wearing for the safety of themselves and others, and the University has recognized this. “Any member of the University community may request that another person wear a mask,” the email states.
The email goes on to explain the scenarios in which one might request that another wear a mask; places like a laboratory, a professor’s office, or even a small classroom could all be places where masks may still be necessary.
This raises one main question for students and faculty: what are the repercussions of refusal to wear a mask in special cases like this if it is no longer a requirement?
Though it is early on after the mandate has been lifted, Giulianna Gentili ‘23 said she hasn’t “heard of anyone upset” by requests from professors who request their students to keep wearing masks in the classroom.
She added that “It’s exciting that the mask mandate lifting is lining up with spring on campus, you can feel people starting to have more energy and the community is coming alive.”
This could lead to difficulties for faculty or students who may be at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. “Many staff and faculty on campus live with children who are currently too young to be vaccinated,” philosophy professor and philosophy department chair Kris Sealey stated. “For instance, the move to a ‘mask optional’ policy puts these staff and faculty at increased risk, and it’s the university’s responsibility to help them offset those risks.”
Professors around Fairfield University have explored these concerns.
“While I think it’s positive that the University is starting the transition from pandemic to endemic, the policy will be difficult to enforce because each person is given the latitude to decide how to proceed,” Dolan School of Business Adjunct Professor Michael Lohle commented.
Other faculty members, like David Crawford, Ph.D. who is a professor in the departments of Sociology and Anthropology, as well as International Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences were critical of the University’s handling of how this policy was made. Crawford is also the president of the Fairfield University chapter of the American Association of University Professors,
“I am an anthropologist and I don’t think anthropologists should be making public health policy,” Crawford stated. “That said, the rates of infection are going down and most of us really hate wearing masks, so I understand making this move.”
Junior Brendan Kilroy expressed deep gratitude for the change in protocol surrounding masks at the University.
“In retrospect the removal of masks feels like the release of the burden of the last three years off my shoulders,” Kilroy said.
He added that the majority of his “professors have aligned with Fairfield’s decision to end mask requirements.”
As a professor at both the University of Bridgeport and Fairfield University, Lohle knew that it was a matter of time before one of the schools made the move. “Honestly, I’m looking forward to a similar set of communications and policy adjustments at UB so I don’t think the University is moving too fast. That said, I do have concerns about the clarity and administrative challenges Fairfield’s new policy introduces.”
Some professors have elected to continue forward with mask-wearing in the classroom, regardless of new policy.
“After speaking openly about the mask policy changes with my students, I plan on keeping masks on in my classes until we have more data, and specifically through after spring break and the weeks following return to campus, to ensure that classrooms can continue to be safe and comfortable places for learning without unnecessary viral exposure,” Egan School of Nursing and Health Studies Assistant Professor Jennifer Schindler-Ruwisch stated.
Junior Public Health major Claire Bellucci stated she was “surprised by the lifting of the mandate.”
“My professors are about half and half on if students are required to wear them,” Bellucci said. “I’ve mostly seen university faculty wearing masks, and students not wearing masks.”
Junior Alyssa O’Keefe shared that she thinks it is “great that the mask mandate is lifting as covid cases seem to be low and under control on campus” and believes that “leaving the decision to each class as far as requiring them is a conscientious idea.”
Like Bellucci, her professors have given mixed responses relating to the mask mandate lifting.
“A few of my professors are waiting to lift the requirement until after spring break cases come out,” O’Keefe continued, “And the other professors are no longer requiring masks.”
This idea of wearing masks in important, possibly higher-risk locations like the Egan School of Nursing follows closely what Dean Johnson is looking to emphasize. In special scenarios, masks may still be required. It is still ambiguous as to what these situations might look like, though.
Although the law is changing at the state level, this won’t change the opinion of professors like those teaching public health.
“While I recognize the changes that are occurring as a result of statewide shifts in guidelines and in our public school systems, in my field of public health, we are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in our community, and I will continue to practice that in my classroom,” Schindler-Ruwisch added.
On Friday, Feb. 25, Vice President of Student Life Karen Donoghue sent out an email on behalf of the Office of the Dean of Students to give yet another update on the mask policy and other adjustments to COVID-19 related directives.
Multiple topics aside from mask-wearing were covered in this email to students. Unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated students will have to receive a COVID-19 test once a week, which will take place in the RecPlex field house.
If students cannot find time to get to the RecPlex, they “can send a copy of a privately obtained negative COVID-19 test result to firstname.lastname@example.org” according to Donoghue. This is a much different way of testing than the University has seen over the last two years.
Masks will still be required in a few places, regardless of University policy; these places are the wellness center, the shuttle, and any COVID-19 testing event.