Today, Rutgers is taking a step forward in returning to normalcy: The blanket mask mandates that have come to define the past two years will begin to dissipate. Rutgers announced the policy during spring break and added in a two-week buffer period before any changes happened. Now, the University seems to feel it is safe enough to move forward with ending certain mask mandates.
The policy change follows other universities, such as Princeton, changing their policies regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as well as new directives from the state government. For example, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) ended mask mandates for public schools in early March.
Such changes have been welcomed by many, especially students, who have contended with the pandemic in immeasurable ways. Whether it was missing out on graduations, going to college during a pandemic, not being able to make or sustain friendships — all of these issues have culminated in a heavy toll on students’ mental health.
As such, moving in a direction that seems to return us to some degree of normalcy is exciting and inspiring: Not having to wear a mask everywhere is a visual sense that things have gotten better, that it is safe to do things again and that the worst disruptions are behind us.
Although there might be that visible reminder that things are not as bad as they once were, Rutgers’ rollout of the changes has been less than clear and less than ideal. The communications have been muddled, and there has been little transparency about why the University made the decisions it did.
Take, for example, the Community Safety Practices website. The website announces that masks are optional in “offices, conference rooms, research labs, housing, and public spaces in buildings,” but then it says that masks will still be required in “indoors in student-staff and student-faculty meeting spaces.”
“Student-staff meeting spaces” is far too vague to inform the students and faculty about masking protocols and should be better defined and more clearly articulated.
What happens if, for example, a professor and student decide to have a meeting in a student center — will they be required to wear masks? The Academic Building on the College Avenue campus is another prime example: Do students need masks on if they are not in a lecture hall? Even more, why should masks be required in lecture halls but not in dining halls when students interact with dining staff?
As the page clearly says that masks will be required on buses, the page should also go through main buildings such as dining halls, academic buildings and gyms.
In addition to clarity on the digital space, the University should post signage regarding mask policies on all buildings, as well. When you enter Scott Hall on the College Avenue campus, for example, you should be reminded that masks are required. Just the same, when you enter a space that does not require masks, you should be met with a sign that says masks are optional.
Rutgers must better communicate with students and staff policy changes so that everyone is on the same page. It should not be as confusing as it is currently.
That confusion seems to stem from the University attempting to appease everyone. Even more, it feels as though the University is only making such a change for the optics of seeming as though it is making change and returning to some normalcy.
That sense of optics is especially compounded by the fact that Rutgers is not offering better testing for students — even as federal coverage of COVID-19 testing for uninsured people has ended — or taking other, maybe more practical, steps such as easing some restrictions on visitors in residence halls.
Rutgers needs to be more transparent about its decisions and the reasoning behind such decisions. A new email should be sent as soon as possible that clearly articulates the changes, where masks are required and where they are not.
While many people are ready to return to some degree of normalcy, the idea behind reducing mask mandates is only sensible when effectively carried out. When it happens in this weird “one foot in, one foot out” space, there is only more confusion and more frustration.
Ultimately, Rutgers, at the very least, must communicate and explain the policy changes more effectively, but the University should also either move further to end masks more generally, or it should continue to require masks.
Regardless of what the University decides to do, it is important to do what you feel most comfortable with. If you are more comfortable wearing a mask, you should continue to do so. Likewise, as mask policies change, tensions might start to run high.
It is important that everyone respects each person’s individual risk tolerance, especially in terms of masking. We all have been through a lot — let us not make things worse as we get closer to returning more fully to normalcy.
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