New COVID-19 policies were implemented this week, including allowing for optional masking in most indoor spaces on campus for students, faculty and staff who are fully vaccinated and boosted.
A campuswide email sent out by the Carleton COVID-19 Core Team explained that the changes come in light of the continued decline in campus COVID-19 case rates over the past six weeks, with the week six 14-day campus positive rate dropping to 0.99%.
Dean Livingston, explained the rationale for transitioning to a mask-optional campus: “Testing data from last week continued to show a downward trend in positive cases. The random surveillance testing positivity rate last week was 0.33%. Our 14-day campus positive rate is now 0.99% and has been declining for six straight weeks. The COVID-19 dashboard shows this data and the decision-making framework calls for masks to be optional when the 14-day campus positive rate falls below 2%. Given these test results and trend data, we were comfortable moving to mask-optional.”
The policy stipulates that faculty may choose to require that masks be worn in their classrooms and labs. This policy change recalls a similar switch to a mask-optional policy last fall when case rates on campus fell within the range determined by the COVID-19 Core Team’s decision-making framework to allow for masking to not be required in all indoor spaces on campus. Dean Livingston reiterated that “as was the case when masks were optional in the fall, professors may still require that masks be worn in their classrooms, and individuals may still require masking in their workspaces.”
Justin London, a professor in the music and cognitive science departments, expressed that in deciding whether to require masking in his classes, he takes both his own risk factors and those of his students into consideration: “I am hoping that we won’t need to wear masks in my classes for the remainder of the term. I am comfortable without—not only because I’m fully vaxxed and regularly tested, but also because my personal risk factors are very low, I don’t have unvaxxed children, friends and or family with risk factors, and I don’t attend many large public events. Likewise, I hope or presume most of my students are in a similar situation, which is why we are able to go mask-optional in the first place.”
He also said that he can better connect with students without masks: “I especially would like to go without masks because it is easier for me to recognize and especially hear students in class without the masks. As an older faculty member, I do have some hearing loss, and masks make it difficult to hear people speak above the ambient noise in our classrooms.”
While the policy change comes in light of campus COVID-19 case rates that indicate a low risk of transmission and infection, some students and faculty are choosing to continue masking in indoor common spaces.
David Ahrens ‘22 explained his thoughts on the new policy and how he is planning on deciding whether to continue masking himself: “Personally, I’m okay with the new mask-optional policy, as I think it provides hope and a sort of reward for our COVID-19 mitigation efforts thus far. I do think that the majority of classes will still require masks, as we shouldn’t subtract from the academic experiences of more vulnerable members of the campus community. Even if it’s optional, I plan to wear my mask while moving through busy buildings, and taking it off once I sit down somewhere. I’m definitely also going to be keeping an eye on COVID-19 cases on campus, but I remain optimistic for the rest of the term and especially Spring Term.”
Another student, Dane Swanser ’23, said that while he is comfortable with the new mask-optional policy, he understands why some students may not be: “I am making the decision to not wear a mask in public spaces because it makes sense for me personally. However, I’m fully understanding of students who do choose to continue masking and want to be considerate of people who are uncomfortable with unmasking indoors, especially immunocompromised students.”
Along with accommodating immunocompromised students, class sizes and social distance constraints may also factor into faculty decisions to continue requiring masks. Biology Professor Sarah Deel said that in her Biology 125 class, masking will be optional during class but required during lab: “During lab, students are required to work in close proximity to one another; social distancing is not an option. During class, students may choose to sit farther apart more easily. Also, labs place a group of people together in a space for much longer than a class. I don’t want anyone to be stressed out because of their personal health concerns. I think the transition back to being mask-free is going to be more difficult for some individuals than others. I am sincerely looking forward to a time when masking is no longer required, but I don’t know that everyone is quite comfortable with that just yet. This policy for labs is the same as it was last fall when masks were optional.”
Deel continued: “Personally, I will likely remain masked in common spaces on campus unless I am eating or drinking. I am generally careful about my behavior away from campus, but I do want to keep the campus community safe, and I feel like I am a potential conduit for the virus. I will likely not require students to be masked when they visit my office, but I will wear a mask for the above reason.”
Dean Livingston and the COVID-19 Core Team emphasized that “we all need to be ready to comply with these requests, so continuing to keep a clean mask with you at all times is important, even as most public indoor spaces won’t require you to wear one.”
Random surveillance testing was conducted throughout week eight, and an additional random surveillance testing clinic will be held early next week. Symptomatic and close-contact testing and targeted testing of groups at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus will continue.
The COVID-19 Core Team will continue to refer to the evolving decision-making framework developed at the beginning of the pandemic for future policy changes.