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To mask or not to mask? University professors have the final say

| Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Last year, University professors lectured to rooms of half-faced students or two-dimensional squares lighting up the projector screen. This fall, they have an opportunity to dictate their own classroom mask policy.

According to the Notre Dame health and safety protocols released this August, there is no mask requirement in the classroom setting. Students always have the option to wear a mask, and professors can require their students to wear a mask.

Eager to see their students’ full faces and expressions, some professors have adopted completely mask-optional classrooms. Some maintain mask requirements, citing the delta variant and personal family concerns as their justification. Others seek to find a healthy middle ground that maximizes both safety and personal connection.

Maggie Eastland | The Observer
Students in an Introduction to Business Technology and Analytics collaborate in class, able to see each others’ full faces for the first time in over a year.

Jenn Cronin, associate teaching professor of management and organization, is not asking her students to wear masks, but she is maintaining more physical distance than normal.

As a professor who specializes in communications and teaches classes on data storytelling, Cronin understands the value of complete face-to-face interaction with her students. 

“It is so hard to teach when you’re looking at a room full of masks,” she said.

At the same time, Cronin is pregnant and wants to protect both herself and her child.

“It’s something that I’m always thinking about,” she said about her pregnancy and the delta variant.

Since pregnant women have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 and are more likely to experience preterm birth, Cronin came to a compromise that considers both safety and student-professor engagement. She does not wear a mask or require her students to wear one, but she remains close to the podium instead of venturing around the room to interact with students as she normally would. 

On the more cautious side of the spectrum, a few departments, including the Program of Liberal Studies and Art, Art History and Design require all students to wear a mask in department classes and spaces.

In a department-wide email, Scott Shim, director of Art, Art History and Design, said the faculty came to the decision together, in light of the delta variant and family health concerns.

The Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) also instituted a mask requirement that applies to at least the first three weeks of classes. The department plans to reevaluate the situation after three weeks, considering student input and COVID-19 trends within the Notre Dame community.

Arriving at its policy after a unanimous faculty vote, exempting one faculty member who is not teaching this semester and abstained, masks are required in all PLS classes and individual faculty offices. Masks are welcome, but not required in common spaces and the PLS student lounge.

The policy explains that masks were deemed necessary in light of new information about the high transmission rate of the delta variant, recent reports of pediatric hospitalizations and some evidence of mRNA vaccine effectiveness declining over time. The intimate, discussion-style classes characteristic of PLS also contributed to the decision.

An August CDC report verified that the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines last at least 24 weeks, but more long-term research is needed, the report said.

The CDC maintains that vaccines are “highly effective” against the delta variant, though breakthrough infections can occur. Some studies suggest that breakthrough cases of the delta variant in vaccinated individuals may cause more severe illness than previous variants.

As the PLS mask policy explains, the delta variant may pose a minimal risk for Notre Dame students who are recently vaccinated and interacting mainly with fellow vaccinated peers, but faculty are in a different situation.

“All of us have a much greater possibility than students of being vectors to vulnerable people,” the policy reads.

Notre Dame faculty have reached a 95 percent vaccination rate, University spokesperson Dennis Brown said, but many staff, including PLS faculty, have family members or children who are not vaccinated, fall into high-risk groups themselves or care for high-risk individuals.

Gretchen Reydams-Schils, an ethics professor in the Program of Liberal Studies, is not personally concerned about contracting COVID-19 but wants to protect others and assume responsibility for the greater good.

“As faculty, we interact with many communities, not just this campus, not just people close to us,” Reydams-Schils said. “I don’t have small children or vulnerable people in my immediate surroundings, but I’m only two steps or one step away from vulnerable people.”

Reydams-Schils said she wishes the University would institute a mask mandate for all classes, such as the classroom mask requirement at Saint Mary’s College, require surveillance testing this semester and create stricter Covid-19 guidelines for football games.

Ernesto Verdeja, a political science professor, shares many of Reydams-Schils’ concerns. Verdeja teaches two undergraduate classes and requires masks in both. 

Verdeja experienced the implications of a breakout case in one of his vaccinated family members before his first class had the chance to meet in person. 

“While we know that the majority of breakout cases for people who are vaccinated don’t end up in the hospital, they could still be pretty serious,” Verdeja said.

Vaccinated individuals can also transmit the virus, though for a shorter amount of time than those unvaccinated, according to the CDC.

Verdeja believes the University’s current policy is a “prudent approach that has some flexibility,” but he still believes masks should be worn in class since vaccinated faculty could carry the virus to someone more vulnerable.

My sense is that we should have masks in class to the extent possible, as an additional safeguard, he said.

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