More Colleges Are Going Mask-Optional — Some by Choice, Others by Law

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Campuses full of maskless people have begun to dot the country.

In an early sign of an anticipated “return to normal” this fall, at least 58 colleges have announced they’re ending or loosening their mask mandates. A wave of colleges made their decisions following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement on May 13 that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

And the list could grow as more colleges require students and employees to be vaccinated. On Friday, the CDC said that colleges “where everyone is fully vaccinated” could return to full, in-person learning without wearing masks.

In some cases, the campus policy change has been dictated by state legislation that bans mask mandates, as can be seen in Oklahoma, Utah, and Texas. On many campuses, high vaccination rates and a lower population density during the summer contributed to the decision.

Still, a number of colleges aren’t lifting masking requirements wholesale, choosing instead to allow only fully vaccinated people to take off their masks, for example, or to require masks to be worn indoors but not outside.

Throughout the pandemic, officials at Weber State University, in Utah, monitored CDC, state, and county health guidelines to inform their Covid-19 safety measures. By the time the CDC made its announcement, “we were getting a very clear signal from all three that they were changing the guidelines as it related to mass coverings,” John Kowalewski, the communications director for Weber State’s Covid-19 task force, said. “The university recognized it was probably time for us to also re-evaluate.”

Weber State made plans to lift its mask mandate on May 19. Masks would no longer be required, but they’d be strongly recommended for unvaccinated people. The university would still require face coverings “under certain circumstances, such as large gatherings, specific events, or work environments.”

There would be one more exception: Faculty members teaching during Weber State’s first session of summer courses, which ends June 25, would be able to decide whether to require masks in their classrooms.

“A lot of these professors had planned for some in-person classes or going back to in-person classes with the impression that students would still be wearing face coverings,” Dane LeBlanc, the chair of Weber State’s Covid task force and director of public safety, said. “So we wanted to give them that latitude to still require face coverings in their classrooms if they still wanted them.”

But the same day Weber State’s mask mandate was scheduled to be lifted, the Utah state legislature voted in a special session to end mask mandates for public schools and higher-education institutions. (That bill was signed by Utah Gov. Spencer Cox the next week.) In effect, the decision was made for them, said LeBlanc.

While the legislation changed Weber State’s plans, it also protected them from pushback. In a town hall held the day the campus mask mandate was lifted, LeBlanc said, there was “not much pushback at all, and I think a lot of the reason is because that legislation really took the authority out of the university’s hands to make those decisions.”

Texas, like Utah, barred government entities — including public colleges — from continuing mask mandates. Southern Methodist University, a private institution, isn’t bound by that policy, but partially lifted its mask requirement the same day the governor issued an executive order. On May 18, Southern Methodist announced masks were no longer necessary except in its health center and, until the end of its spring term, in classrooms. During the June term, faculty members can opt to require masks in their classrooms or labs, and during research activities, and were instructed to “include a clear statement about the classroom mask requirement in their syllabus.”

Leaving that decision up to individual instructors was a way to “stair-step” the lifting of the mask mandate, said Chris Regis, Southern Methodist’s vice president for business and finance, who has overseen the campus’ Covid-19 response. The move was, she said, based on discussions with faculty members and the Faculty Senate “about the opportunity for faculty to set policy in their classroom, just like they set other policies within their classroom.”

Southern Methodist had been contemplating lifting its mask mandate in the week prior to the CDC’s announcement, and ahead of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates, Regis said. Covid-19 case counts and hospitalization and death rates had dropped in Dallas County, and the campus itself hadn’t seen any new cases, isolations, or quarantines in nearly two weeks. A critical mass of the university community — including around 70 percent of faculty members — reported they’d been vaccinated, too.

Regis said campus officials are closely monitoring the situation to be sure the loosened mask restrictions don’t result in a rise in cases.

Although Southern Methodist made its decision independently, based on campus and local data, the CDC’s announcement was a welcome indication they’d made the right call, Regis said. Helpful, too, was the fact that the campus would be able to test masklessness with a lower number of people in the summer. Last year, the institution chose to offer its July-session classes in person as a trial period before offering in-person classes on a larger scale in the fall. “The concept of kind of testing the waters with smaller populations makes a whole lot of sense and gives you an opportunity to make any adjustments before you have larger populations on the campus,” Regis said.