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EDITORIAL: Rutgers should consider future of mask mandates on campus

As COVID-19 continues to go down and as other officials lift restrictions, Rutgers must begin thinking about next steps related to the pandemic

As New Jersey ends mask mandates for public schools, Rutgers should reconsider what lifting restrictions may look like on campus.  – Photo by Jacek Pobłocki / Unsplash

As the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic evolves and we gain greater population immunity to the disease, government officials are changing their course of action on how to deal with the pandemic. Central to these changes are masks. Masks, which have been the core of so many pandemic-related policy debates and culture wars, are once again a central issue to policy makers.

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) announced beginning tomorrow, masks would be optional in public schools. Murphy further said that this move will provide a sense of normalcy to kids, one that they have not known since the initial closures of schools. This change of policy comes as reports continue to emerge that detail the effect of masks on kids.

As Murphy undoes the mask mandate for public schools, universities in the state are also taking steps to change their policy relating to masking. 

Princeton University, for example, has recently announced their plans to adjust to the new realities of COVID-19. As the number of cases have decreased, Princeton has decided to stop requiring masks in all indoor spaces, and they are reducing their testing requirements. 

While Princeton is moving to this more relaxed stance, it is important to note that they are not forgetting about COVID-19 entirely. To balance this new situation with the ongoing pandemic, they are depending on a culture of independent responsibility and are leaving decisions about masks in classrooms to professors and teaching assistants (TA). Princeton is also leaving a monthly testing requirement for fully-vaccinated students in place. 

Generally, we believe that Rutgers should follow the lead of both Murphy and of Princeton. The University should begin to re-evaluate policies related to COVID-19 and look at how to best move forward toward a new normalcy. 

While the University tries to maintain masks and policies relating to COVID-19, the reality is that many places in New Brunswick do not require masks and students usually go without masks in these places. Even the Starbucks at The Yard @ College Avenue does not require masks to be served.

These disparities of where masks are needed and where they are not points to one reason the University should begin changing some policies.

Yet, before any changes are made, the University should create a survey to understand what students want and gauge people’s comfort levels. The survey must consider the experiences of immunocompromised people and individuals for whom the vaccines might not be as effective. Having this baseline understanding of where students stand and how the most vulnerable populations feel will lead to best possible policy decisions.

If the University ultimately does move to end mask mandates, we must emphasize the need for individual responsibility — the fight against COVID-19 is not over, even if we have fewer cases. The University must also allow professors and TAs to decide if masks are required in their classes based on their personal circumstances or beliefs.

In addition to professors and TAs, there should be some method for immunocompromised students to request their classes continue wearing masks, as well. As we move into a new phase of the pandemic, it is important to adjust to the new realities while also considering how people — especially the most vulnerable — feel about them. 

Rutgers must also bring back free, wide-reaching testing for vaccinated students. Currently, those who are vaccinated do not have access to free testing for COVID-19. The University must also implement a testing policy that requires testing once a month so as to monitor COVID-19 and what is happening on campus.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, a lot of people are growing tired of COVID-19 related restrictions and policies. It is also important to acknowledge that things have changed — vaccines, boosters and population immunity, which have all have led to a safer, healthier environment.

As these looser restrictions are implemented and masks become optional, it does not mean we have to give up masks entirely. As we move forward, people's own levels of comfort must be what guides their decisions.

We should keep up with these changes and create a community that responds to positive developments. These changes will not only give students a reprieve from COVID-19 restrictions but will also make students more likely to respond positively if more restrictions are needed in the future.

COVID-19 is a difficult, challenging, frustrating disease that has interrupted so much of our lives. Moments, when it is safe, should see some restrictions lifted.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 154th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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