The University of Michigan announced Wednesday, March 9, that it would be loosening its on-campus masking policy effective Monday, March 14. In an email to the “U-M Ann Arbor Community,” COVID-19 Response Director Dr. Robert D. Ernst and U-M Chief Health Officer Dr. Preeti Malani announced that “masking will be optional in most indoor spaces on campus including in offices, residence halls and at athletic events.” This will come as very welcome news to a community which has, to this point, left in place far more stringent masking guidance than what is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Unfortunately, though, Ernst and Malani buried the lede: students will still be required to wear masks in classrooms through the end of the Winter 2022 semester.
College students have been forced to bear the brunt of the pandemic in ways few other demographic groups have. As we enter the third year of this pandemic, the leaders of our community continue, unabated, to find new and creative ways to disrupt students’ college experience. Many had hoped former University President Mark Schlissel’s dismissal earlier this year would lead to a COVID-19 policy based more on ensuring a return to normalcy for students, but that return will likely have to wait until at least the end of the current academic term.
Dr. Robert Ernst told me that, “The CHRC (U-M’s Children’s Health Research Center) will continue to monitor conditions on and around campus and follow guidance provided by the CDC and the local public health community when advising executive leadership about COVID mitigation measures. With that being said, it seems unlikely that additional substantive changes will come before the end of the winter semester.”
Ernst noted that the new masking policy “aligns with public health guidance in terms of safety,” which is true. The fact remains that overwhelming scientific data supports the use of masks in order to mitigate the spread of airborne pathogens such as COVID-19, but it is becoming increasingly hard to justify such disruptive measures to combat a disease that is more treatable and far less deadly than it was two years ago. Ernst began his comments to The Daily by claiming that “the announced change to the U-M face covering policy comes as the campus and surrounding community has moved into a recovery phase of the pandemic,” but the new policy definitely still feels as though we’re living in the mitigation phase, all the while universities and school districts nationwide end mask mandates of their own.
Ernst also said that even though COVID-19 in the Ann Arbor area “has waned dramatically over the recent weeks there are still some in our community who, understandably, because of their individual circumstances, remain hesitant.” He added that leaving the mandate in place for instructional spaces “was to maintain a high level of confidence in those areas of core work for everyone.”
Of course, there probably are many in the University community who view that as a sufficient explanation, one that can essentially be boiled down to “this will make a small percentage of the population feel more comfortable, and we’ll continue to adhere for the rest of the semester.” That is a perfectly valid explanation, and it is absolutely not a big ask for students to mask up for the last few months of the semester, already having been doing so for nearly two years in an effort to protect a few. But that isn’t really the point. This was an opportunity for the University to make a massive concession to its students, who have followed its piecemeal COVID-19 policies since March 2020.
Wearing a mask is not an overbearing burden, but it is symbolic of the idea that COVID-19 is still governing our lives at a time when, scientifically speaking with vaccine mandates and low cases, it just doesn’t have to anymore. What’s more, a key component of masking policy throughout the pandemic has been uniformity — that if more of us wear masks in as many locations as possible, the spread will be most effectively mitigated. But this masking policy essentially allows students to shed their masks in any University setting outside of the classroom. Here’s a simple hypothetical: what is the point of wearing a mask in an Angell Hall auditorium when you’re surrounded by a maskless crowd upon entering and exiting the auditorium? Sure, you probably won’t catch COVID-19 in the auditorium, but in the hallway it’s every man for themselves? It doesn’t take a doctor to realize how little sense this makes.
If the motivation is truly to “maintain a high level of confidence in (instructional) areas,” as Ernst says, then the policy driving that confidence should be wholly unimpeachable. Regrettably, that is not the policy we have been given. If the worst thing to come out of the rest of the Winter 2022 term is students wearing masks in class, that’ll be a relatively harmless end to the school year. Shouldn’t we, though, strive for higher than benign, higher than well-intentioned, higher than unobjectionable? Policies should have tangible purposes. This one doesn’t.
Jack Roshco is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.