Fall’s Mask Mandate Outlook

COVID-19 masking policies for fall are all over the place. Disability advocates worry about what it all means for diversity and inclusion, though U of Pittsburgh has negotiated a new way to accommodate high-risk faculty members.

August 29, 2022
Two people wearing masks confer.
Fall masking policies range from classroom and library mandates to encouraging those who feel vulnerable to wear a mask.
(Monstera/Pexels)

With colleges and universities now starting their third pandemic-era fall term, COVID-19 safety precautions—and faculty members’ thoughts on them—are very much a mixed bag.

Take two Pennsylvania institutions, the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, for instance. At Pitt, the faculty union and the administration reached an agreement that creates a new process by which professors can request adjustments to their working arrangements if they or anyone in their household are at high risk for COVID-19 complications. In exchange, the faculty union agreed to Pitt’s stance on face masks, which is to mandate them indoors only when community transmissions levels are high, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At Temple, meanwhile, the faculty union continues to ask the administration to break with Philadelphia’s mask-optional policy and mandate masks indoors, or at least allow individual professors to require them.

A New Accommodations Process

Pitt’s new United Steelworkers–affiliated faculty union filed an unfair labor practice claim with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board in March, saying that Pitt went mask optional that month without first negotiating with professors. The new, legally binding agreement on special accommodations resolves that complaint. It details a way—independent of the university’s disabilities accommodation process—for professors to request and receive “reasonable” adjustments to their work if they have a particular need for additional protections against COVID-19.

Each request will be considered on a case-by-case basis, meaning that the policy doesn’t guarantee that a professor with a specific health concern will be allowed to, say, teach every class remotely. The agreement does commit Pitt to making a good-faith effort to meet reasonable requests.

Tyler Bickford, professor of literature at Pitt and chair of the union’s bargaining committee, said that “when the mask mandate was lifted in March, there were a wide range of views among the faculty about that. But our biggest concern was that there weren’t new protections for the most vulnerable faculty, or faculty with vulnerable household members. So, from the beginning, that’s really been our priority. And I think that our agreement with the administration does create really important new protections that didn’t exist before and that really directly address health and safety environments during a pandemic.”

He added, “The Americans With Disabilities Act is a really key set of rights and protections. But it also is limited in an infectious disease environment.”

The ADA, for instance, applies to individual employees and not their households. And across academe, numerous professors have reported being denied disability accommodations for health conditions that still put them at high risk for COVID-19.

Another problem professors have faced during the pandemic is differing accommodation standards throughout their institutions: one department will agree to what another won’t. To address this, Pitt’s new process includes a procedure for appealing departmental decisions about work adjustments, as well as a structure for ensuring uniform decisions. Applicants are not asked to disclose sensitive health or personal information unless they’re appealing an initial denial of their request by their supervisor to the Office of the Provost.

On office hours, Pitt’s pandemic policy has been to allow individual faculty members to hold them virtually or in an alternative location when masking is not required. The new agreement affirms this as a standard, so that all professors feel comfortable following it.

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Pitt is now also working with the union to share more data on filtration and ventilation in faculty workspaces.

“I think it’s very reasonable, and I think I’m optimistic that it will be implemented in ways that are fair and appropriate,” Bickford said of the new process. Pitt’s administration, he added, “also deserve a lot of credit for honestly being innovative here as academic leaders.”

Pitt said in a statement that it’s “looking forward to an in-person fall term, made possible by a highly vaccinated community and a strong record of compliance with health and safety guidelines. Pitt’s mask rules will, at a minimum, be consistent with CDC guidance, which relies on community COVID-19 levels to determine when indoor masking is required. Additionally, Pitt affiliates on all campuses are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved exemption.”

Per CDC guidance, Pitt is no longer telling students to quarantine following a COVID-19 exposure, regardless of vaccination status. Instead, they’re advised to wear a mask for 10 days around others when indoors and get tested five days after exposure, or upon developing symptoms. Pitt is also pausing a mandatory testing program for those with vaccine exemptions, though it will require arrival testing for students living in residence halls.

Divided Over Mask Mandate

Temple recently announced that masks will continue to be required in health-care and clinical spaces, but they are now optional elsewhere. The American Federation of Teachers–affiliated faculty union there publicly objected to this change, saying in a statement that the decision “was made without meaningful consultation with our faculty or staff. Given the ongoing threats to the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and North Philadelphia neighbors, we demand that the university follow science—and common sense—as classes resume.”

At the time, Philadelphia was experiencing high community transmission rates. The CDC recommends masking at that level, and Jeffrey Doshna, professor of city planning and union president, said that as “a research university, it is particularly irresponsible for Temple to ignore the science.”

As of the weekend, community transmission levels in Philadelphia had fallen to medium.

Doshna said in a statement that at the very least, Temple should “follow the example” of several other area institutions and allow individual instructors to require masking in their classrooms and other teaching spaces, such as by including it in their course syllabi. Villanova University policy, for instance, says that “Faculty may require students to wear masks in their classes, laboratories or offices, and students must comply with this request. Students and staff may ask the same of one another when meeting or getting together.” Temple’s guidance, meanwhile, encourages everyone to continue to carry a mask and be willing to wear one if asked.

Librarians and academic professionals “should be able to stay safe in their workspaces as well,” Doshna said.

Steve Orbanek, university spokesperson, said via email that like other area institutions, Temple “will be mask-optional to start the fall semester, and we continue to follow the city’s best practices and guidance related to COVID-19. When it comes to masking, we encourage all members of the Temple community to make the best decision for themselves, taking into consideration all factors, including COVID-19 transmission levels, the indoor setting and their own health, while respecting the decisions of others to protect themselves.”

The city of Philadelphia dropped its indoor mask mandate in April but continues to require that all college and university students, faculty and staff members receive the original vaccine series or an approved exemption. Temple recommends but doesn’t require booster shots. The university plans to offer asymptomatic testing this fall but phase it out later in the term.

Elsewhere: A Variety of Approaches

According to an unofficial list regularly updated by COVID Safe Campus, a coalition of disabled students, faculty and staff members, more than 50 campuses now have some sort of mask mandate for settings other than health care and transit. The University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, continues to require masks in classrooms, research labs and the libraries; instructors and lecturers may take off their masks to speak when greater than six feet away from students or audience members.

Citing the BA.5 subvariant of Omicron, a highly transmissible strain of COVID-19 that is driving the current surge in cases, Rutgers University announced that face coverings will still be required in all indoor teaching spaces, libraries and clinical settings. And at Georgetown University, masks are required in indoor instructional spaces but not in “informal” gatherings in libraries and study spaces. Vaccinated and single-boosted speakers and instructors may remove their masks to address others when six feet away or more.

At Duke University, masking is required in classrooms when community transmission rates are high, as they are currently. When local transmissions rates fall to low or medium for two consecutive weeks, masking will no longer be required in class. Unvaccinated people are still required to wear a mask in all indoor settings, including libraries.

In yet another approach to masking, a few institutions, including the University of Delaware, have announced two-week mask mandates for fall to curb transmission rates at the start of the new semester.

The University of California, Los Angeles, meanwhile, this month said that it’s dropping its indoor mask mandate. Bill Kisliuk, university spokesperson, said that “UCLA’s protocols in regard to masking are developed in close coordination with public health experts, include UCLA Health epidemiologists and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Compliance with our protocols has been strong and has helped UCLA achieve a level of COVID-19 safety generally better than the region as a whole.” Individual instructors at UCLA are not permitted to require masks in their classrooms, unless masks are required in that setting by local public health officials, such as in clinical settings. The campus also is ending its daily symptom-monitoring survey. Vaccination or an exemption is still required.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported that a group of UCLA and University of Southern California doctors had argued against the mask mandate in a letter to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors earlier this year, and some of the same physicians published an opinion piece in the Orange County Register this summer arguing against the reimposition of a mask mandate in Los Angeles amid the current surge.

Michael J. Beck, administrative vice chancellor, and Megan McEvoy, professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, co-chairs of UCLA’s COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force, said in an announcement that as “the pandemic evolves and the severity of illness seems to be waning, we are adjusting our campus protocols to better align with current public health conditions in line with the transitions that have already occurred at other academic institutions, and within the county and state.”

John Branstetter, a lecturer in political science at UCLA and unit co-chair of the university system’s AFT-affiliated lecturers’ and librarians’ union, said the end of the mask mandate is “definitely the source of a lot of discussion in our union.” There remains particular “frustration with the limited accommodations made for folks who are at higher risk due to age, pre-existing conditions or having a compromised immune system,” he said.

In another surprising decision, Hudson Valley Community College said this earlier this summer that it was ending its vaccine mandate, in order to “increase access and remove a barrier to higher education after an extraordinarily difficult time for many students.” The college backtracked last week, however, saying it would follow the State University of New York’s policy on vaccination instead, which is that a primary series is required and that boosters are encouraged. HVCC says that 85 percent of fall students have submitted proof of vaccination thus far.

Eiryn Griest Schwartzman, COVID Safe Campus’s founding executive director, said that the group strongly advocates mask mandates because masks are a simple, inexpensive preventative measure, relative to some other COVID-19 mitigation practices. As for the apparent debate surrounding the efficacy of mask mandates, Schwartzman cited a preprint (not yet peer reviewed) comparative study of mask mandate policies in greater Boston–area school districts finding that case rates were significantly higher in districts that removed masking requirements than in those districts that kept them.

While “there definitely has been a rollback on requirements and a lot of places are optional,” Schwartzman said recently, “it’s really hopeful that in this past week, even the past few days, we have seen several schools reinstate mask mandates, even in limited spaces.” Still, COVID Safe Campus argues that masks shouldn’t just be required classrooms, but in any indoor spaces where campus community members may need to be, including libraries.

Beyond mask mandates, or lack thereof, Schwartzman said that many institutions continue to remove their COVID-19 dashboards ahead of the semester, “which really makes it hard for people to make informed decisions, and also really eliminates the transparency needed for accountability.” The end of dashboards is tied to the mass scaling back of testing requirements seen since spring, Schwartzman also said.

“Now that testing is pretty much voluntary, it’s really difficult to understand what’s happening and also difficult to arrange data-driven decision-making.”

In addition to students and staff members, Schwartzman said COVID Safe Campus worries about faculty members with disabilities and high-risk conditions being pushed out of their jobs over COVID-19 safety concerns.

“Their perspectives are critical to diversity, equity and inclusion, and losing out on that is a big loss,” Schwartzman said.

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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