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COMMENTARY: Time for Rutgers to reconsider mask mandate

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Masks have become an impediment to education. – Photo by Mika Baumeister / Unsplash

Like many people, I am ready to stop letting the pandemic control my life. The virus is still here, it always will be, and everyone (including you and me) will catch it eventually. But viewing air as a lethal threat was starting to take its toll on my sanity. So after my fourth vaccine dose this spring, I made the uneasy but informed decision to stop wearing a mask.

But the detente I have reached with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is about to be upended. You see, I teach here at Rutgers, and in Fall 2022, we are starting yet another semester in which our faces are treated as pollutants. Maybe a faceless sea of humanity has started to look normal to you, and for a time it was. But it is not normal anymore. Only Rutgers does not seem to know that.

Mask mandates have been steadily disappearing since last spring, and nearly no universities require masks anymore.

To understand how peculiar Rutgers’ mandate is, you only need to make a list of universities in our region that don’t require masks. That list includes Penn State, Temple, Stony Brook, Binghamton, Albany and Buffalo and the universities of Maryland, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Delaware. In New Jersey, all two-year county colleges and nearly all four-year colleges are mask-optional.

You can read online a more extensive list of different types of mask policies and which universities have them. But here is the short version: A tiny handful of universities still require masks, but the overwhelming majority do not.

Rutgers, of course, does not have to follow the crowd. But since it is imposing a controversial (and increasingly unusual) requirement on 69,000 students and 8,000 faculty members, I hoped an institution committed to robust discourse would feel some moral imperative to explain its reasons.

Apparently not. Rutgers’ official announcement of its fall 2022 COVID-19 protocols offers no explanation for continuing the mandate. I asked the University why Rutgers was keeping a mandate that nearly every other school had dropped, and I was basically told that Rutgers is very large and masks reduce viral transmission.

Of course, masks reduce viral transmission, but that is not the point. Masks would also reduce transmission at all the large schools mentioned above. Are those schools being reckless with their students’ and faculty’s health?

No. They simply recognize that it is not 2020 anymore and that mask mandates are no longer necessary because people have the tools to protect themselves if they want to. In 2020, there was no treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. N95 masks were reserved for health care workers, and the surgical and cloth masks that were available to the public were more effective at blocking exhaled virus particles than inhaled ones. Therefore, the only way to keep us safe was for everyone to wear a mask.

None of those conditions exists anymore. Nearly everyone at Rutgers is required to be vaccinated and boosted, which significantly reduces one’s risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19. Anyone who wants more protection can now buy and wear an N95 mask. Those at risk for severe disease are eligible for Paxlovid (a pill that treats COVID-19, available for free).

The world still is not 100 percent safe from COVID-19, but when was the world ever completely safe? Technology has made us safe enough that my choice not to wear a mask just does not affect your safety very much anymore.

This technological progress has allowed nearly every school to drop the mask mandate. But Rutgers seems impervious to progress. Last spring, Rutgers kept its mandate while many universities were dropping theirs. And since that time, mask mandates have vanished nearly everywhere: K-12 schools, airlines, Broadway theaters, state offices, Ubers, New York City subways. Very few places, other than doctors’ offices and Rutgers classrooms, still require masks.

Most entering first-year Rutgers students just graduated from high schools that won their freedom from masks last spring, only to be strapped back into their masks as college students. We are now in a bizarre situation where kindergarteners can decide whether to wear masks, but adults who teach and attend college cannot.

Last spring, airlines and K-12 schools pushed to end the mask mandate because airline passengers were getting unruly and parents were disrupting school board meetings. I hope Rutgers does not see the same sort of friction, but the experience from last spring shows the unwisdom of the University’s continuing to smother people’s choices on a complicated and divisive issue.

After one week of school, we are already seeing widespread noncompliance. The University would be wise to deescalate the issue by dropping the mandate like most schools have, rather than sanctimoniously doubling down on enforcement.

It is time for Rutgers to join nearly every school, workplace and public space in the post-crisis reality where masking is a choice. Otherwise, Rutgers’ classrooms will be nothing more than living relics of an emergency health measure whose time has come and gone.

Peter Ullman is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Mathematics. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the official views of Rutgers.


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