Debate Over Campus Mask Mandates Stretches Into Fall Semester

Debate Over Campus Mask Mandates Stretches Into Fall Semester
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on September 16, 2021

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At hundreds of colleges across the country, returning to campus requires a COVID-19 vaccine. Most students appear to be complying. Early data collected from universities with COVID-19 vaccine mandates showed that more than 90% of the students, faculty, and staff at many elite private schools report being vaccinated.

Despite high vaccination rates on U.S. college campuses, many schools are retaining or even increasing pandemic restrictions, chiefly mask mandates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) previously implied that fully vaccinated students generally did not need to wear masks in the classroom. With the late summer surge in case numbers associated with the Delta variant, the CDC recommends universal mask-wearing in schools for everyone ages 2 and older.

Majority of College Students Support Masking, Some Protest

Recent polling indicates that college students support both vaccine and mask requirements. An August poll of 1,000 students by TimelyMD — a telehealth company focused on higher education — found that at institutions with vaccine and mask mandates, 85% of students favored the vaccine requirement and 87% favored mask mandates. Additionally, the poll found 70% percent of students at institutions without mask mandates said they planned to wear masks on campus anyway.

While most students are prepared to mask up on campus, the tightening COVID-19 rules do not allow the "return to normal" that many hoped for this fall. At Amherst College, COVID-19-related restrictions relaxed following a campus vaccination mandate. Citing the Delta variant, the school announced to require masks both indoors and in shared outdoors areas; students were required to wear either a KN95 mask or a double mask in classrooms and common rooms. Additionally, students' trips into town were restricted and campus dining was suspended.

"What message does this send to young people? That they must uphold their end of the deal — get vaccinated despite their low risk — but the institutions have no obligation to uphold theirs," Dr. Leslie Bienen of the OHSU-Portland State University School of Public Health wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. According to Bienen, "There are no data supporting these draconian restrictions in nearly 100% vaccinated and low-risk populations."

Amherst students attracted national attention when they circulated a petition demanding these rules be loosened. Shortly after the petition was delivered to the administration, the college dropped the outdoor mask mandate and said students were allowed to pick up food from local restaurants, the Amherst Bulletin reported.

Many public health experts say masks are key to reducing spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory infections. Other experts question the long-term practicality of the tool. Dr. Martin Makary, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told the Education Exchange, "We're coming on two years of kids wearing masks... If we use the same criteria now for other respiratory viruses, our schools are going to be shut down or masked in perpetuity — forever."

Mask Mandate Debate Goes to Court

As of last month, most Americans supported mask mandates for students and teachers in K-12 schools, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Nearly 60% of Americans said students and teachers should be required to wear face masks. However, when broken down by political identity, eight in 10 Democrats favored mask requirements, compared to three in 10 Republicans.

The political divide over mask mandates are playing out in courtrooms across the country. Nearly all conservative states that have attempted to ban mask mandates in schools now face lawsuits. Schools in Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa have been allowed to require masks while cases in their respective states are litigated.

Feature Image: mixetto / E+ / Getty Images

All college students must wear face masks due to COVID-19, but the policy raises challenges for students in terms of communication, confidence, and learning. As cases of the COVID-19 delta variant increase, colleges are deciding whether they should return to in-person classes or stay online. Any college welcoming only fully vaccinated individuals for the fall term has been given the green light to return to full-capacity, in-person learning.