Diana Ho, Contributing Writer
Masking will be optional for in-person and instructional activities during summer classes at VCU campuses starting May 23, according to the One VCU website.
On March 21, masking became optional in most VCU spaces with the exception of in-person classes and instructional activities. By the summer term, all VCU spaces will be mask-optional, except for clinical settings, health facilities and public transportation.
Brian McNeill, interim director for VCU News, stated there are no current plans to eliminate masking in clinical settings, health facilities or on public transportation.
“The overwhelming majority of the VCU community is vaccinated,” McNeill stated.
As of December 2021, 95.4% of VCU students and 97.2% of VCU employees are vaccinated, according to the One VCU spring 2022 dashboard.
There are 261 in-person courses being offered this summer, according to McNeill. VCU has not made an announcement regarding additional changes and will communicate any updates to the VCU community.
VCU makes decisions about operational changes based on the Public Health Response Team. The team considers the prevalence of COVID-19 at VCU, the availability of testing, hospital space and student isolation and quarantine, McNeill stated on behalf of PHRT.
The VCU PHRT works with the Incident Coordination Team, which was established to respond to emergency situations at VCU, to review guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Virginia Department of Health and VCU’s own medical experts. The team monitors COVID-19 in the VCU community and develops protocols to local outbreaks, according to the One VCU website.
Mark Plume, a sociology professor teaching Introduction to Sociology in-person as part of the Summer Scholars Program at VCU, said he expected the implementation of a mask-optional policy.
“Not surprised; I know that the university wants to move toward, like a lot of institutions, a lot of organizations, want to move towards a mask-free environment,” Plume said. “I’m going to stay masked up during the summer.”
Plume said he believes universities are making decisions on masking for in-person classes based on metrics other than public health.
“They’re being made based on the finances because residential colleges, universities make their money in the dorm and in the dining hall. At the bottom of it is the economic consideration,” Plume said.
Research from The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the education sector is experiencing the biggest financial loss ever faced. Institutions that were tracked averaged an estimated 14% aggregate decline in revenues in the fiscal years of 2020 and 2021, according to their website.
Plume said he wears masks in consideration of his students and for personal reasons.
“My mother’s immunocompromised. I live with her. She’s in a hospital bed in the front room,” Plume said. “You know, there’s all those situations going on, but here’s the bottom line; at some time, we have to move toward whatever is a ‘new normal’ that doesn’t include 100% masking.”
Anne Nicely is a second-year student majoring in forensic science. Nicely, who uses both she and they pronouns, said she is taking general chemistry and calculus with analytic geometry in-person this summer at VCU.
“I guess I saw it coming, honestly. But I don’t know. I’m happy that we’re moving towards new beginnings, but I’m skeptical because it is summer and a lot of people are probably going to be traveling before taking summer classes. I will continue to wear my mask in the class setting,” Nicely said.
Nicely said the threat of new COVID-19 strains makes them worried.
The COVID-19 strain, BA.2, is considered a variant of concern and should be monitored as a distinct sublineage of omicron by public health authorities, according to the World Health Organization website.
“I think if it does get bad again, I think they should definitely require it once again. But I know Richmond’s positive population rate is below 10% right now, I believe. So I think as long as it stays fairly low then I think they should keep it optional,” Nicely said.
The Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard states that by April 19, there were 12.4 cases per 100,000 population on a seven day average in the Richmond district. On January 26, there were 157 cases per 100,000 population on a seven day average.
Nicely said if VCU decides to keep the optional-masking policy in place by the fall, it should be based on the positivity rate.
“I mean, coming back from summer does make me worried that a spike will happen again. I think it just depends on that really,” Nicely said.