If you read the latest six-line University Notification email in your inbox and were confused, upset, or frustrated, you are not alone. In a poll conducted in the Penn Class of 2024 GroupMe Thursday after the email was sent, 400 out of 543 student respondents said that they did not believe we should have a mask mandate. However, the fact that this is the only empirical indication we have of opinions on the mandate among the student body is indicative of Penn’s undemocratic decision-making process throughout the duration of this pandemic.
In the first line of the email, after citing its desire to extend the mask mandate in classrooms, Penn claims to have made this decision “following consultations with students and faculty across campus.” Despite this, no broad public opinion poll was conducted on students or faculty about their thoughts on the mandate. Institutions like the Undergraduate Assembly become blatantly performative if their representatives are not consulted on issues that pertain to the entirety of the student body.
College sophomore and UA representative Cody Eskandarian said, “Regardless of the choice [the] administration makes, they should at least be receptive to student input. I think that a big reason so many students are dissatisfied is that neither the student body nor student government groups were asked for feedback prior to the decision.”
Penn’s public health stance seems to be contradictory with the reality at universities around the country, including others in the Ivy League. At Harvard, Princeton, and Brown, for example, professors have autonomy over their own classrooms to choose whether or not they would like to require masks for their students. There are even more lax universal mask-optional policies at Columbia and Dartmouth. Many other universities that still have a classroom masking requirement have set end dates, like UChicago’s on April 4.
Notably absent from the email are any updates on transmission or positivity rates on campus, or public health information of any kind to justify this decision (despite this information being included in all prior COVID-19-related University communications). From my standpoint, this is likely because public health guidance simply does not support their decision. The mandate is at odds with both Pennsylvania statewide and Philadelphia citywide guidelines, which hold that masks remain optional in all public spaces. In Philadelphia specifically, mandates for schools were lifted on March 9.
Hannah Victor, 2017 Nursing and 2018 Penn Law School graduate and a current teaching assistant for "Public Policy Process" expressed her issue with the University’s dismissive decision.
“By extending the classroom mask mandate indefinitely, the University is disregarding current CDC guidance," she said. "In their March 24 email, Penn administrators pointed to the actions of 'peer universities,' evincing a pack mentality rather than making an evidence-based decision.”
The latest research on masking is also inconsistent with this decision on the part of Penn. A recent New York Times piece titled “Do Covid Precautions Work?” compared deaths in red and blue states since December (where there were clear disparities in the extent of COVID-19 precautions put in place). They saw very similar mortality rates across all the states they analyzed, and differences were not necessarily attributable to regulation.
The article also advocates that mask mandates have not made a substantial difference in stopping the spread of the Omicron variant and that “there is a strong argument for continuing to remove other restrictions [mask mandates], and returning to normal life.” This is especially true in highly vaccinated and boosted communities like Penn, where 99% of people are fully vaccinated and 60% are boosted (as of March 1). Vaccines save lives and are by far the most effective way to combat COVID-19.
My argument is also sympathetic to the plight of the immunocompromised and others who are at higher risk of being symptomatic from COVID-19 than others on Penn’s campus. The science, however, shows that if you are vaccinated and boosted, wearing an N95 mask will protect you from COVID-19 even if no one else is masked. The beauty of optional mask policies is that they allow for people to make accommodations and choices based on their own needs.
The reality is, COVID-19 will become become endemic. This virus, in its different variants, is here with us to stay. But unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, we have a wealth of scientific research and information about how to best combat the spread and symptoms of the virus. The most recent Omicron variant was also significantly milder than those in the past, a trend that seems consistent in possible new variants. Even with increases in cases, both at Penn and nationwide, a mandate seems unjustified if people are minimally or asymptomatic altogether. Our approach can no longer be one-size-fits-all, and at the very least, the University needs to consider the impacts of universal masking requirements on building classroom community, the difficulties that come from teaching in a mask, and the overall efficacy of its COVID-19 response.
Victor further emphasized the ways in which the current guidelines fail to take into consideration our current reality. “As a Penn alum who served as a nurse on the United States Air Force COVID-19 missions during some of the worst of the pandemic, I am no stranger to the realities of coronavirus," she said. "Now a TA for an undergraduate PPE course, I hold in-person classes with young people in their 20s. The continued mask mandate stymies interaction and limits participation. I would like for Penn to execute a proportionate response that relies on the latest research. I am disappointed to see that this has not been the case.”
While it is unlikely that the University will altogether lift the mandate before the semester is out (indicative in their evasive email lacking any timeline for changes), greater opportunity for accommodations to a universal requirement would be very feasible. If Penn's goal is to protect high-risk students and faculty: Require masks in classes where someone is in danger, and do so while protecting this person’s anonymity. If there is concern surrounding the windowless, close quarters that classes often occupy: Allow professors who lecture significantly more than six feet away from their students to remove their masks, or only require masks in tightly packed seminars and recitations.
Penn’s failures to take stock of student and faculty opinions through official polling, have flexibility in the mandate, or provide justification for the change in its decision highlights the larger problem with both Penn’s and the country’s COVID-19 response. Often disjointed (see the random PennOpen Pass checks on campus), and arguably performative and politicized, Penn needs to re-evaluate the intentions behind its COVID-19 restrictions.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.