COVID-19 Planning Group Announces New Outdoor Masking Policy

The increasing number of students receiving COVID-19 vaccines, coupled with the CDC’s easing of mask-wearing restrictions outdoors, raises new questions about campus COVID policies surrounding mask-wearing. In light of these updates, the College’s COVID-19 Planning Group announced new masking and visitor policies in an email to the campus community on May 5. 

The announcement states that indoor masking policies remain in place. Outdoor masking restrictions, however, will be eased for fully vaccinated individuals gathering in groups of five or less, per the new CDC guidelines. The visitor policy, which closed campus grounds to off-campus individuals, is also the same for the time being, but the college plans to open up the campus to visitors on June 7. 

In an email to The Phoenix, Assistant Director of Student Health and Wellness Mary Reilly wrote that the COVID-19 precautions outlined in the Garnet Pledge are still in place to keep COVID-19 cases down. The College has reported eleven student cases and 22 staff and faculty cases during the Spring semester. While there have been no student cases and only two faculty and staff cases in the past two weeks, Reilly stressed continued caution. 

“Becoming complacent could disrupt [the low COVID-19 case numbers], so we urge everyone to remain vigilant and consistent in utilizing the infection prevention strategies outlined in the Pledge including wearing masks, physically distancing, washing hands and limiting leaving campus for only essential activities,” Reilly wrote.

Reilly also iterated that individuals achieve full vaccination status two weeks following their second dose of the vaccine. The large population of students, faculty, and staff who received vaccines at the two campus vaccine clinics will not reach full vaccination status until the end of May or early June. 

Students on campus have expressed concern about the enforceability of the new rules. In an interview with The Phoenix, Kevin Stewart-Mercurio ’22 stated that students would gather outdoors, unmasked, even before the mask rule adjustment. 

“Every lunch and dinner you’ll find groups of unmasked students outside, probably breaking this rule. Students definitely don’t follow all of admin’s rules and I wouldn’t credit admin’s rules with preventing an outbreak on campus,” he said. 

From his perspective as a former RA, Stewart-Mercurio noticed that Public Safety had repeatedly neglected to act on visitors breaking closed campus policies. 

“I’m no longer an RA but I will say that we were told to call Pub Safe if we ever saw non-Swat visitors on campus. From my experience, that system was a joke because by the time Pub Safe got there, if they got there, the visitors were gone. That’s a pretty specific example of an unenforceable rule, but I think a lot of the rules are unenforceable and so to have them in place feels like Swat is just using them as liability protection.”

Other students argue that the COVID policies enforced by the college, in general, have been very misguided. In the email sent on May 5 outlining the new policies, the COVID Planning Group acknowledged that campus policies remain stricter than what CDC guidance suggests. The discrepancy between CDC recommendations and campus policies was highlighted by Ray Sidener ’21, who argued in an interview with The Phoenix that many of Swarthmore’s COVID policies do not align with scientific research. 

“A lot of [the policies] don’t seem to be very closely based on official guidelines or science of how things are spread. For example, a lot of precautions are based on wiping down surfaces, even though there’s basically no chance of transmission from surfaces because it’s an airborne disease. Related to this, there’s been a huge switch to disposables, which sucks, just environmentally speaking,” Sidener said.

The updated masking policy falls in line with research from June of 2020, suggesting that transmission outdoors is less likely than indoors due to many factors, including dilution and inactivation of viral particles from ultraviolet light. These facts were largely ignored, however, by administrators, who have imposed strict outdoor masking rules since campus was opened last Fall.

Instead of focusing on policies loosely connected to research, Sidener explained that the college should focus more on testing students on campus, in addition to students living near campus. 

“The admin really should allow COVID testing for students living near campus. The idea that on-campus students aren’t interacting with off-campus students is just ridiculous. There’s no way the admin actually believes that [off-campus students aren’t interacting with people on campus],” he explained. 

Despite the realities – a low case count, the increasing availability of vaccines, copious research outlining the facts of transmission, and imposition of unenforceable COVID policies – students are in large part grateful for the adjustment in the outdoor mask policies. In an interview with The Phoenix, Blaine Thomas ’24 claimed that the adjustment is a sign of campus returning to normal.

“I find it really weird to see people walking around campus without wearing masks, but I think overall, [the updated policy] is nice because it means that we’re one step closer to going back to a normal semester in the Fall,” Thomas said. 

Photo courtesy of Laurence Kesterson.

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