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Individual Mask Mandates: Readers Respond

In which wise and worldly readers address whether individual faculty should be able to require masks in their sections.

July 20, 2021

When I posted yesterday about whether individual professors should be allowed to mandate mask use when the college as a whole is mask optional, I assumed there would be a diversity of opinions. And I was concerned that some might be expressed in unhelpful ways.

I’m glad to report that I was right on the first count and (mostly) wrong on the second. Wise and worldly readers wrote in with thoughtful responses reflecting a range of perspectives. It was all I could have hoped for, and I tip my cap to my readers.

For context, I should have specified that we have a robust lineup of online and “remote live” classes, so students who are concerned about being in classrooms with other people will have the option of taking classes from home. That’s not universal -- it really doesn’t work with auto repair, for example -- but students will have options in the vast majority of cases.

One longtime reader suggested,

“As for masks in classrooms, the elements your thinking out loud overlook, it seems to me, include ventilation and the immunocompromised -- or parents of children who cannot yet be vaccinated. If a mask requirement is advertised in a syllabus or posted in advance, the main rub seems to me if it’s the only available section of a required course and you have someone adamantly opposed for political/freedom reasons.”

I’m told that we’re in surprisingly good shape on ventilation, which is helpful. Still, if someone sitting next to me coughs, I’m not sure that it matters much that the vent in the ceiling is connected to a good filter. Single-section courses can be a challenge, though I don’t know how to avoid them entirely.

Another reader suggested a metaphor to K-12:

“I think perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be to nuts in the elementary school classroom. While there are some schools that ban peanuts altogether, some do it on a classroom by classroom basis. If there is a kid with a serious nut allergy in Mrs. XX 3rd grade class, that classroom (but not the other 3rd grades) becomes nut free. And it typically is not made public which kid has the nut allergy (though the kids often know).

The classroom is a community (of sorts) and as such the members have certain responsibilities toward each other. One could do an anonymous survey prior to the first day of class asking whether there was anyone (students and instructors) who had a particular reason (such as immunocompromise, preexisting conditions, etc.) that would make it problematic for them to be in a classroom with unmasked people. And then based on the result, you might have one section of Econ 1 be mask-free and another one be masked etc. …”

I like the spirit of this one, but I suspect that the circumstances are more different than the analogy suggests. In third grade, students typically stay in one class most of the day, every day. In college, students mix and match classes across the week. If everybody told the truth and obeyed the honor system, it could work, but a little defiance could get real ugly, real fast.

Another focused on the fact that the college is part of a much larger political system:

“In your particular case, as a state institution, you can fall back on the state guidelines. The state said that masks are optional, and that is how your institution will (*must*) respond. Faculty, and students, may wear masks if they wish, but you (and your institution) cannot override what the state has said. Besides, if a faculty member’s (or a student’s) health condition might suggest that wearing masks is necessary -- and I’d say that’s probably pretty rare -- then there are potentially other options for course delivery.”

That’s pretty much how it works. Whether it should work that way is a separate question.

Another reader, a president of a college in another state, drew a distinction between a vaccine mandate and a mask mandate:

“My college is not mandating vaccinations but we are mandating masks for any students taking classes in person while they are in a building. All employees will wear masks in the buildings, unless they are alone in a private office. Our classes will be primarily virtual in the fall. Our faculty have been adamant that they are not the mask enforcers so it is unlikely that we will know who is not wearing a mask in the classroom.”

This one has me concerned. If you mandate masks in classes, but faculty are adamant that they aren’t the enforcers, then who is? Here, too, if everybody did the right thing, it would work. But as James Madison pointed out, if men were angels, no government would be necessary. But they aren’t, so it is.

A former colleague suggested:

“We are now at the point in this ‘new normal’ where how one handles their choices is about personal responsibility. I'm still wearing a mask when I feel it’s needed. Faculty can do the same for themselves.”

I like this one because it implies, correctly, that a vaccinated person can also choose to wear a mask. “Mask optional” means that masks are allowed, which they very much are. Someone who is both vaccinated and masked has a very high level of protection, and both employees and students are well within their rights to do that.

Finally, one relatively brusque response got right to it:

“On one hand is a fuss and on the other is people dying or having long term disability. You seem to be choosing not to have a fuss over people’s health.”

If it were that simple, it would be that simple.

It’s a complicated question, and the best answers may change as circumstances do. But I thank my wise and worldly readers for engaging the question thoughtfully and honestly. That’s the spirit in which I’d love to see public policy questions addressed more often.


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