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Faculty speak: Professors react to new mask policy

As of Wednesday, October 6, vaccinated members of the Carleton community are no longer required to wear a mask in any indoor or outdoor public spaces. However, a professor may individually choose to retain masks in the classroom—a policy that has received mixed reactions from faculty. 

According to Assistant Director of College Communications Helen Clarke, Carleton lifted its universal mask-mandate after baseline testing—which resulted in a 0.09 percent positivity rate—indicated an “exceedingly low” presence of infection within the Carleton community. In early September, the college had published a decision-making framework to the COVID-19 Dashboard stating that they would consider making mask-wearing optional on campus—with additional testing strategies in place—once the positivity rate fell below 2 percent. 

“With our 14-day positive rate well below the lowest positivity level in that framework, we feel confident that, within our highly vaccinated community, masks do not need to be universally required at this time,” Clarke said.

 “We have sought to allow faculty and staff to make decisions about their individual working spaces while we also leverage the ability that our highly vaccinated community has to reduce some of the restrictions and still keep positivity rates low.”

For some faculty members—like Juliane Schicker, professor of German—the protection of a highly vaccinated community is limited. Schicker also must consider the safety of her young, unvaccinated daughter, who will be in the last age group to get vaccinated.

“She attends daycare in the larger Twin Cities community,” explained Schicker. “For the last two weeks, my child was in daycare quarantine because there was a cluster of at least nine COVID cases among staff and children in the daycare. Luckily, my daughter tested negative.”

Schicker decided to continue mandating masks in class. 

After gathering student feedback, Mija Van Der Wege, professor of Psychology, came to a similar conclusion.

“I had already decided that I would personally keep wearing a mask in public inside college spaces,” said Van Der Wege. 

“I wanted to assess my students’ risk factors and risk tolerance through a survey before making a decision.  Based on that data, I decided to keep masking as the norm for my classroom, with the caveat that masks can be lowered while speaking.  This was likely a conservative choice, but I see masking as a relatively small sacrifice compared to the potential harm.”

Other faculty, such as Baird Jarman, professor of Art History, are choosing to personally remain masked while leaving it optional for students. 

“The reason I will continue to mask is partly scientific, partly psychological and partly rhetorical,” said Jarman. “I have two daughters too young to be vaccinated (one just starting middle school and one in elementary school). Some of the middle school students are vaccinated, but very few of the sixth-graders are old enough yet. None of the elementary school students are vaccinated.”

Like Van Der Wege, Jarman has actively solicited feedback from his students, urging them to tell him if they felt uncomfortable with the policy.

“That way I could announce that we were keeping the masks and not have one student get ‘blamed’ for the ‘imposition’ but rather take the heat myself,” said Jarman. 

Faress Bhuiyan, professor of Economics, expressed worry for junior faculty members, specifically, who may be “worried about making unpopular decisions and are trying their best to give students the best possible classroom experience.”

“A number of them have vulnerable family members who will require masking. And the hope is students will understand,” he said. “However, students who are left feeling the class experience was not so great (compared to say other classes that did not require masking) may find it difficult to differentiate between where to put the blame—masking or the instructor. There is no easy answer to this difficult question and unfortunately some may mistakenly think it was the instructors fault when it was because of the masking.”

Others, such as Anita Chikkatur, professor of Educational Studies, voiced concern for college staff, who have less control over masking in their immediate environments.

“It’s unfortunate that the college has decided to end the mask mandate and has made keeping our community safe and healthy the responsibility of individuals,” said Chikkatur. “I also do not understand the unnecessary, arbitrary and confusing distinctions being made in terms of what counts as “workspace”. I, as a faculty member, can mandate masks in classrooms but staff can only require it in their individual offices (if they have one at all) but not in an office suite or other workspaces.”

“I had hoped that one thing we had learned from last year is to think about ourselves as a community who take seriously the protection of those who are the most vulnerable amongst us, instead of just resorting to emphasizing individual choices over community needs,” she continued.

One faculty member, who preferred to stay anonymous, called the new policy a “grossly irresponsible decision by college leadership at a time of locally surging COVID.”

“Public health amidst a pandemic should not be treated as a private accommodation or personal preference, and individual employees should not be expected to bear the brunt of any pushback on mitigation measures,” they said. 

“The Northfield Hospital ran out of staffed beds and had to open a temporary emergency room this week to deal with overflow. Carleton owes its workers, students and the surrounding community far more care. Until local transmission rates fall significantly, the college should reinstate the mask mandate.”

As a member of the Core Team, Clarke acknowledged that it was likely that the new policy would lead to mixed reactions.

“We know that opinions vary across campus about whether masks should be required universally or in some public spaces,” she said. 

“Carleton’s approach has been to make decisions based on data and epidemiological advice, and to be as consistent as possible in our decision-making as we prioritize a meaningful residential living and learning environment that minimizes the number of COVID-19 cases within our community and prevents significant transmission that could affect in-person learning.”

“While masks are no longer required to be worn in most indoor spaces on campus, many members of our community have chosen to continue wearing a mask. We support these choices and ask others to do the same,” she added.

David Liben-Nowell, professor of Computer Science, acknowledged some benefits to the new guidelines and the inherent difficulty in implementing any mask-related policy.

“Whether or not this was the choice I’d have made, it does have the advantage of acknowledging that situations differ: personal circumstances (like individuals or relatives who are immunocompromised or ineligible for vaccines), how many students are in a particular class relative to the classroom size and how important it is to see the speaker’s mouth (which depends on the course content),” he said.

“There was no possible masking decision that was going to make everyone happy.” 

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