On Thursday, March 24, President Valerie Smith sent out an email to students, faculty, and staff members informing the community that the COVID-19 Planning Committee had made updates to the current politics and procedures regarding COVID-19.
The biggest change to the campus policies was the announcement that, effective Saturday, March 26, individuals were no longer required to wear masks indoors, with a few exceptions.
In an email to The Phoenix, Planning Committee member and Vice President of Communications Andy Hirsch explained the new policies and the reason behind the updates.
“Rates of COVID-19 on campus and in and around Delaware County have fallen to their lowest point since last summer, and virtually all students, faculty, and staff members are up-to-date on their vaccinations,” he wrote. “Given those factors, and based on the guidance from our medical and public health professionals, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 Planning Group made the decision to lift the indoor masking requirement, with the exceptions that are noted in the policy.”
The noted exceptions are that masks will still be required during classes and labs, inside studios, the Lang Performing Arts Center, and Worth Health Center, and while riding on the Garnet shuttles.
“We recognize that classes held indoors can present some different circumstances and challenges than some other indoor settings. Students and faculty members in class are often in close quarters for an extended period of time. Though our medical consultant felt that any increased risk of going mask optional in classroom settings was minute, we felt that, out of an abundance of caution, leaving the requirement in place for the time being is in the best interest of our community’s health and safety,” said Hirsch.
Hirsch also noted that similar reasoning was used in deciding to keep the mask mandate for the Garnet shuttles, while the decision to keep the mask mandate for the Lang Performing Arts Center was based on the higher number of people that gather in those spaces.
In addition to the college’s decision to end the mask mandate, all COVID-19 capacity-related restrictions for indoor events were also lifted. Starting on April 1, access to the Matchbox, Ware Pool, and the Mullan Tennis Center will be once again extended to spouses and partners of current employees and their dependents, retired staff, emeriti faculty, and alumni — meaning that all facilities will return to their pre-pandemic state.
Students have mixed reactions to the updated policy changes, with some expressing excitement and others sharing reservations. In an interview with The Phoenix, Jace Flores ’24 reflected on the college’s new policy.
“I am glad the mask mandate is gone because I am, like most other Swarthmore students, triple vaxxed, very young, and of all the demographics in the world I’m the least likely to be hurt or longtime impacted by COVID … I feel like the removal of the mask mandate so we can return to normality and live the college life like we should is something that should be celebrated,” said Flores.
Some students, like Elizabeth Labows ’22, are concerned about the potential increase in transmission rates with the mask mandate partially lifted.
“I am worried we are going to have more cases in the coming weeks as a result of lifting it,” said Labows.
Other students are also worried that the combination of the lifted mask mandate and the end of required COVID-19 testing might mean that people will be uninformed about the potentially higher rates of COVID-19 on campus. Sophia Becker ’24 commented on the possible effects of the new testing and masking policies.
“I think that while lifting the mask mandate could be a reasonable choice, the fact that they did that at the same time that they stopped requiring testing is a problem. We don’t know what the levels of transmission will be when we do this because we’re not going to know the rates. Even for people who aren’t comfortable taking off their masks they can’t see what’s going to happen or how that goes, and the college can’t see what’s going to happen or how it’s going because no one is testing,” said Becker.
Despite Swarthmore’s policy update, some nearby colleges have yet to lift their masking restrictions — with Haverford and Bryn Mawr College still requiring universal masking in indoor spaces. The University of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, announced that as of March 15 masks would be optional in indoor spaces except in classrooms, health facilities, and on campus transit.
Swarthmore students are still adjusting to the new COVID-19 policies with some choosing to continue wearing a mask even in spaces where it isn’t required anymore because they feel more comfortable doing so.
“I am still wearing mine because I know a lot of people who have tested positive so I am still wearing mine in Sharples, like when I’m getting food. When I’m just with people I know I will take mine off,” said Cassidy Cheong ’23.
The exceptions to lifting the mask mandate have also left some students with questions about why certain exceptions are in place and the timeline for when those exceptions might also be lifted.
“I am a music major, and all of the mask mandates are still on for all of the music buildings. Even when I’m by myself in the practice room I am required to wear my mask which is frustrating because I am a singer, and it’s really hard to sing with a mask on your face. It’s a little bit illogical to me that even when I’m in a closed room by myself I still have to wear a mask, so I do hope that gets lifted soon,” said Cheong.
In addition to the music buildings, some students are wondering when the mask mandate will be lifted for all other classes.
“I’m glad the mask mandate is mostly lifted and I am waiting for when they get rid of the arbitrary mask mandate for classes,” said Flores.
In his email to The Phoenix, Hirsch added that, should circumstances change, masking mandates and other COVID-19 policies could be completely reversed. Nevertheless, he and others on the COVID-19 Planning Committee expressed optimism that rates of COVID-19 will continue to trend downwards and stated that more restrictions would be lifted in a way that still makes the Swarthmore community feel safe.
“Among the many lessons learned during the past two years is that predicting the course of COVID-19 is a fraught exercise. We hope the positive trends on campus and in the surrounding communities continue. Regardless of what happens, we remain committed to making decisions that are responsive to the latest science and information, prioritize the health and safety of the campus community, and allow for an educational experience that’s central to the College’s mission,” wrote Hirsch.