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SAWANT: Rutgers is not ready to lift mask mandates

Column: Sincerely Rue

As we rush to return to normalcy, masks remain important at Rutgers. – Photo by Jason Lei

The last time I had been in a classroom before Jan. 31 was on a sunny but wet, seemingly random, March day during my senior year of high school. Cue the pandemic, the lockdown, the uncertainty, the virtual high school graduation and the endless stretch of time spent attending Zoom classes out of my childhood bedroom. This spring, I was finally able to sit in a classroom again for the first time in almost two years.

Yet, even in my excitement, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with students in a full-capacity lecture hall was an overwhelming experience.

Leaving the Rutgers Business School for the Livingston Plaza bus stop was another shock to my system, as my eyes and my mind processed the throng of people that stretched along the sidewalk, all waiting for what seemed like the same LX — that beloved LX. 

After packing myself on the bus and squeezing between the backpacks of three other students, I knew that nothing I had experienced that day was coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safe. The only thing any of us could rely on — in that sweaty LX — were our masks. 

As you may have seen these past two weeks, campus was absolutely buzzing, and it will remain that way. In all of these environments we put ourselves in every day, it is a simple fact that it is virtually impossible to keep your distance from others.

After kicking off the first two weeks of the Spring 2022 semester from our homes, it is obvious that the COVID-19 virus remains prevalent in its circulation around our country, our state and our campus.

The highly contagious Omicron variant suggests that the rapid development of the virus is something we must continue to seriously grapple with, rather than ignore simply because we might be growing tired of masks. 

Each variant brings something different than the last and given the still relatively novel nature of the disease, ending the mask mandate on a campus as active as ours is not a solid course of action.

You may have heard that the city of New Brunswick formally ended the indoor mask mandate from Feb. 1 onward — you are no longer required to wear masks inside the city’s establishments.

Despite the social landscape surrounding our campus discarding their masks in order to grasp at some sense of normalcy again, Rutgers must hold fast to its mask mandates. Masks should not be done away with, especially in lecture halls, buses, libraries and other communal spaces. Rutgers is simply not ready for such a step. 

We must go to class, get to work and take the buses to navigate campus. The crowds are an inevitable part of campus life. You cannot efficiently limit crowds in a school as large as Rutgers. In such a situation, we must rely on our vaccines and our masks.

But the almost comical size of crowds everywhere is not the only reason Rutgers must continue to enforce the mask mandate.

According to the most recent version of the University’s COVID-19 Exposure Protocol, students in quarantine are permitted to go to (packed) classes, take the (packed) busses, do laundry and remain in the same vicinity as other students only if they do not exhibit recognizable COVID-19 symptoms. 

The issue with this logic is that some people may be asymptomatic while others experience symptoms that are not necessarily unique to the virus. Regardless of whether a person exhibits common physical symptoms is a weak constraint for whether a student in quarantine may continue to surround others in public spaces.

Yet, this is what the University has chosen. In respect to the risk that we may be sitting beside someone in quarantine, our masks are our immediate defense to limit the spread of the virus. 

But why am I rallying for masks and not just a total reliance on our vaccines? Well, the basic functions of masks are to act as a barrier that prevents your respiratory droplets from reaching others, according to the Centers for Disease Control,

So, masks do not necessarily protect us from others, rather they protect others from us. But when everyone wears a mask, everyone is protected — the transmission of our droplets is limited from every person sharing the same area, and that is how we stay safe. 

I have said it before but I will say it again: Rutgers is a huge school.

There are just too many of us to socially distance effectively anywhere on campus. As a response to such a reality, we must remain cognizant of our responsibility to keep one another safe by leaving our masks on. This is how we can decrease transmission in our crowded buses, lecture halls, study lounges and other communal areas.

Rujuta Sawant is a Rutgers Business School sophomore majoring in business analytics and information technology and minoring in political science. Her column, "Sincerely Rue," runs on alternate Mondays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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