University considers lifting mask mandate after spring break

Masked students walk around campus. Photo by Jay Stonefield

Katrina Lee, News Editor

The university announced via email to its students and faculty members it is considering rescinding the indoor mask mandate on campus, except for classroom spaces, according to a VCU Together email. 

University spokesperson Michael Porter stated in an email that VCU’s Public Health Response Team is responsible for deciding on a transition to voluntary masking.

“The Public Health Response Team is expected to make a recommendation as early as this week. That recommendation will be considered by VCU’s Incident Command Team and senior leaders,” Porter stated on Monday.  

The university’s decision on lifting the mask mandate is dependent on the state of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at VCU and Richmond, according to the VCU Together email. VCU previously lifted the mask mandate in summer 2021. 

“If COVID-19 positivity and hospitalization rates continue to improve in the coming weeks, with positivity rates in Richmond sustained below 10%, VCU plans to once again transition to voluntary masking effective March 21,” the VCU Together email stated. 

March 21 was chosen to “give our university community time to monitor trends” in COVID-19 cases following spring break, which is from March 6 – 13, according to the email. 

Reported COVID-19 cases in Virginia have declined according to the Virginia Department of Health website. The VDH reported a decline from 84,315 cases on Jan. 8 to 8,300 cases on Feb. 17.

“If VCU transitions to voluntary masking, masks will continue to be required in certain situations such as clinical settings, health system facilities and when using public transit,” the VCU Together email stated. 

The Center of Disease Control recently released new guidance on wearing masks based on location, ranking areas from low to high transmission. The CDC stated mask wearing is based on personal preference in low status areas. While in high status areas, the CDC recommends wearing a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status or individual risk.

The City of Richmond is currently at a medium status, recommending wearing masks if individuals are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness, according to the CDC

Gian Tigreros, a junior studying theater technical production and an organizer for Walkout VCU, a group advocating for hybrid classes, said they don’t agree with VCU’s consideration of lifting the mask mandate.

“Now is definitely not the time to step away from preventive efforts,” Tigreros said. 

Tigreros said VCU policy updates surrounding COVID-19 have furthered their motivations to advocate for hybrid classes. 

 “Every update that VCU has announced has just been worse and worse,” Tigreros said.

 The consideration of lifting the mask mandate followed Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order, which rescinded the mask mandate for children in K-12 public schools. Tigreros said they think it’s “horrible” what Youngkin is doing. 

“It doesn’t say anything about universities. I think it’s really cowardly for VCU to submit to Youngkin’s orders even though it doesn’t apply to us,” Tigreros said. 

Tigreros said Walkout VCU and The United Campus Workers of Virginia are working together to advance their agenda for COVID-19 related accommodations. 

“We are in talks with the VCU faculty union, the United Campus Workers of Virginia. Their steering committee approved a list of demands we are going to send out. We are leaps and bounds from where we were a couple weeks ago,” Tigreros said. 

Bernard Means, an assistant professor of anthropology, said his decision to teach in-person during the spring semester was due to the mask mandate.

“I can state that I will not be happy if the mask mandate is lifted and that my teaching in person was predicated in part on the mask mandate,” Means stated in an email. 

Means stated if the mask mandate is lifted he would probably start avoiding places like the library.

“My understanding is that the mask mandate will not be lifted in classroom settings, which is my biggest concern because two of the classrooms within which I teach do not allow social distancing,” Means stated.

Means stated he is worried lifting the mask mandate will lead to masks being seen as voluntary when it would still be required in some circumstances. 

“Two students I spoke with today read the recent email from the university saying masking was being lifted across campus and did not see that they were still being required in classrooms.  I think this needs to be strongly stated,” Means stated.

Contributing Writer Mae Oetjens contributed to this report.

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