As we settle into this new normal “post” pandemic, many colleges around the country have begun to revise and update their COVID policies to reflect the most current trends in local areas. For example, the University of Pennsylvania recently announced that masking is optional in all indoor spaces, except in the classroom (until March 28), healthcare spaces, and on their transit vehicles from March 15 onwards. On March 21, Temple University will lift its masking mandate on its campus except for in classrooms, labs, and other select spaces. These policy changes are a response to the drop in COVID cases, including the 54% drop in cases in the state of Pennsylvania over the past two weeks. We, The Phoenix, anticipate that our college will soon follow suit in its policies. As our country and college evolve our response to the ever-changing public health crisis, we ask for respect and understanding from the Swarthmore community as personal choices to mask or unmask remain valid.
Unlike Parrish Beach, Sharples, libraries, and other more open public spaces, students are required to go to their classrooms, laboratories, and other academic spaces to further their education and satisfy their course participation requirements. Due to the nature of these academic spaces, students also do not have much choice on who they are interacting with and in close proximity to. By making masking optional, the college may be forcing groups of students who are immunocompromised or are uncomfortable being unmasked to be in a confined space where they are at risk of contracting the virus. It is important to note that masks not only protect an individual from the virus, but also prevent an individual from spreading the virus. Consequently, we hope that masks continue to be mandatory in academic spaces until CDC guidelines recommend otherwise. If Swarthmore chooses to make masks optional earlier than this, we hope that in-person class attendance will also be optional for all students, and that professors will provide resources such as lecture recordings for students who do not feel comfortable being in the space.
Furthermore, throughout the pandemic, masking has become a safety net from a mostly invisible threat. It is impossible to tell if someone has been exposed, and masking has become a way for people to minimize the risk. This risk will remain even after the mask mandate drops. When masking becomes optional, some may judge those who want to continue masking. We, The Phoenix, ask that people on campus do not jump to conclusions. Likewise, those who continue wearing masks may also judge those who choose not to. It is equally important to recognize that a return to normalcy is uplifting for many people. As the removal of mask mandates is endorsed by local governments across the country and the U.S. Senate, people are well within their rights to participate in this inspiriting change. Judgment from any side, and the isolation it creates, will only be a disservice to the college community that is so important to us as students.
We, The Phoenix, envision a staggered approach to the unmasking process. As similar colleges and universities have demonstrated, continuing to require masks in classroom and healthcare settings remains a wise strategy. While allowing campus community members to wear masks optionally will likely appease both sides of the argument, the safety of the immunocompromised and vulnerable must be held paramount in the process.