Pandemic restrictions like mandatory masks in classrooms and the testing requirement for unvaccinated students are gone for the Fall 2022 semester. The masking requirement was removed at the start of the spring semester while the testing requirement — which required unvaccinated individuals to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing — was lifted for the start of the fall semester.
As a result of these changes, instructors — including those who are immunocompromised — are no longer able to require masks within their classrooms. This has led to disputes between the University of Michigan and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization (LEO), which believes its members should be able to require masks within their instructional spaces.
Kirsten Herold, LEO President and Public Health lecturer, said a majority of LEO members want to have authority over requiring masks in their classes.
“Well over 90% (of LEO members) agree that instructors who, for whatever reason, feel unsafe in their classroom ought to be able to require students (to) mask,” Herold said. “(We’ve been told) we can’t do it. I think there are departments that are sort of saying, ‘Well, if you ask students to please mask, they’ll probably all do it,’ which I think has been some people’s experience, but there are other departments who say you can’t even say, ‘Please mask.’”
Public Policy professor Paula Lantz is one professor who is requesting that students wear masks. She said she is “respectfully” asking students to mask even though she cannot require it.
Lantz said she plans to follow COVID-19 guidelines outlined by the Washtenaw County Health Department, which showed that the COVID-19 level in Washtenaw County was “high” and wastewater COVID-19 levels were “extremely high” at the beginning of the fall semester.
“I have told my students that while current campus policy is that masks are optional in class, I am ‘respectfully requesting’ that they wear a mask in class and when speaking to me one on one,” Lantz wrote. “It is not a requirement, but a respectful request based on public health science (and) guidance, and also the fact that a number of people in my courses this fall — including me — are at high risk for COVID complications.”
Masking is not just an issue for lecturers; graduate student instructors are also experiencing a new semester without mandatory masking. Rackham student Jared Eno, Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) president, said he feels the new masking policy does not reflect current community transmission levels.
“These (policies) are basically optional at this point,” Eno said. “They don’t seem to have much of a relationship with … the level of community transmission. So in that sense, the University is placing the responsibility for keeping ourselves safe on us as individuals, as students, as workers.”
Eno also said he believes the new policies are putting immunocompromised students and faculty at risk.
“This university policy is making all of us vulnerable to COVID including potentially long term effects, or long COVID,” Eno said. “That’s true for all of us, but particularly for immunocompromised grad students and immunocompromised people in general. People who live with or have friends or family who are immunocompromised, it’s putting all those folks in a pretty terrible position of choosing between their livelihoods and their health.”
Both the leaders of LEO and GEO feel many of these issues are a result of a lack of communication between the University administration and instructors.
“The University frankly isn’t very interested in what we have to say at this point,” Herold said. “The COVID Council has been disbanded. It was never a deciding body, but it was an advisory body that gave advice and also gave university leadership some sense of how people were going to respond because we were kind of a sounding board.”
In fall 2020, GEO went on strike in protest of the COVID-19 policies at the time. Now, two years later, Eno feels graduate student voices are still not being considered in changes to the COVID-19 policies.
“The union has never been included in these decisions,” Eno said. “Now, of course, grad workers went on strike in fall 2020 after trying for months to communicate and get information in a meaningful way from the administration about campus safety. So unfortunately, the University’s lack of transparency and engagement with the community at this point seems pretty standard.”
LSA freshman Toby Buckfire believes the masking and vaccination policies work as they currently are.
“Overall, I still do feel pretty comfortable even if most people do not wear masks just because of everyone having vaccines,” Buckfire said.
Not all faculty members were opposed to the new policy. Statistics professor Jack Miller said the move to optional masking reduced the friction of enforcing mask mandates.
“I think (mask) optional is probably best because the enforcement has been very difficult,” Miller said. “Last year, I had to stop my class several times to tell people to pull their masks over their noses (or to) wear a mask, period.”
Miller said they feel the University should encourage students who continue wearing masks.
“I wish that there was more communication that told students and faculty and staff that it really is okay to wear a mask,” Miller said. “I can tell you I wouldn’t want to sit in one of these chairs without a mask, because that’s close contact for more than 15 minutes … That would make me uncomfortable as a student.”
Peter Koymans, assistant professor of mathematics, said he thinks wearing a mask is a personal decision and one should understand and accept the risks associated with the decision.
“I might keep wearing a mask simply because I feel like as a teacher, it’s very important to … protect your students,” Koymans said. “But for my students, I can understand why they might prefer not to wear a mask constantly. But of course, there are also risks associated with such a thing.”
Engineering sophomore Hunter Schrupp said while professionals have said COVID-19 will eventually turn into an endemic virus, he still feels uncomfortable with the reduction in COVID-19 policies that could prevent him from contracting the virus.
“I would have some reservations about that … We’ve been in COVID for such a long time that it might be getting to the point where this is just going to be a normal thing like the flu,” Schrupp said. “But also, I know that it is a serious disease … I would feel a little more uneasy if I knew there was a chance that I would sit in a class with someone that had COVID.”
Eno believes the University does not support the health of all workers on campus, not just graduate workers.
“The University fails to consistently prioritize the health and safety of students and workers,” Eno said. “We need to depend on each other to keep each other safe. And if we fight together for each other’s needs we can absolutely do that.”
Daily Staff Reporters Matthew Shanbom and Meghan Kunkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com