Updated as of Feb. 23, 2022 at 10:57 p.m. to include additional information regarding community reactions to lifting mask mandates.
The Healthy Elon committee anticipates COVID-19 restrictions will change in the coming weeks for Elon University. According to a university email on Feb. 17 from chair of the Healthy Elon committee Jeff Stein, guidance for the next steps will come from public health officials.
The email did not give specific dates of when students, faculty and staff can expect the indoor mask mandate to end, but said the university may be able to modify the mandate later in the spring semester. Daily COVID-19 case counts have been declining in the past two weeks, Stein wrote, and as of Feb. 17, 98% of students are booster compliant and 86% of faculty and staff are boosted or waiting to become eligible. Students were required to get the vaccine and booster, but faculty and staff were not.
Communication design professor Hal Vincent said he’s looking forward to the end of the mandate.
“I want this to be over as much as anybody but also want it to be ready to be over. And I am very excited that we might one day be out of this,” Vincent said. “So for me, I will keep the mask on. But I will gladly celebrate — more than anyone, possibly — the day that we are as a people confident to know that we're not hurting others. I'm going to rip that sucker right off and party like it's 1999.”
Vincent said teaching in a mask has been difficult for him, not just on a physical level with enunciation and volume, but also on a personal level from not being able to see his students’ facial expressions.
“Reading student reactions, and even hoping that students can understand anything that I'm saying, even on a personal level, we lose so much about human interactions when we can't see the smile in the face, or the frown, or the gnashing of teeth, whatever it is,” Vincent said.
Despite the high vaccination rate and decrease in daily positive cases at Elon since mid-January, some professors have concerns of what the Elon environment will soon look like.
Professor of religion Lynn Huber said she’d like to see the mask mandate continue in the future for one simple reason: masks work. While teaching in Italy over Winter Term, Huber said the mask mandate allowed her to feel safe with students while abroad.
“It was possible to do things and be out in public and go out to eat, and that was great,” Huber said. “But the only reason that I could do that or we could do that as a study abroad course was because people were really good about wearing masks.”
As long as any decision made to remove the mask mandate is backed up by health experts, Vincent said he’ll trust that he can safely take his off.
“I personally am all about, ‘Hey, let's follow and do what evidence, research and science experts lead us to do,’” Vincent said. “And if we have to err, generally, maybe it's a little better to err slightly on the side of caution and public health.”
English professor Tita Ramirez said she’s conflicted about whether she believes it’s time to remove the mandate.
“Part of me is like, ‘Oh, my God, yes, let's take the mask off,’” Ramirez said. “Then the other part of me is like, ‘Oh, my God, no, let's permanently attach them to our faces through a surgical procedure.’”
In the email, Jeff Stein said large gatherings and social events can still cause unexpected surges in COVID-19 cases on campus. If masks come off, Ramirez and Huber wonder whether classes will be the same.
Vincent, however, said he doesn’t believe classes will be any more of a risk than other maskless activities.
“In my opinion, the classrooms are probably going to be no more unsafe than just about any of the other human interactions that I have in the course of the day,” Vincent said. “So personally, when the time comes to say that we don't have to do it anymore, I'll be as comfortable as I can — as comfortable as I am going to eat, to visit my grandma, and to buy groceries.”
If the mask mandate is removed from Elon University, Huber said it could be a threat to at-risk individuals — such as her immunocompromised spouse.
“I'd like us to be more cautious and mindful of the fact that we do have people in our community — and not just faculty and staff, it’s students too — who have compromised immune systems and family members who are ill, and that they need to protect themselves,” Huber said. “I'd like the university to take the initiative in thinking about those folks first, maybe instead of just having to fend for themselves.”
Ramirez has young children, but said her worry isn’t that she’ll bring COVID-19 home; it’s that her children will give it to her, and then she’ll give it to fellow professors and students.
“They're like walking petri dishes, even when you're not having a global pandemic,” Ramirez said. “I'm a vector; I have little kids. So, I'm not quite as terrified that I'm going to bring something home to my kids.”
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control released on Feb. 11, showed that the effectiveness of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna booster shots wanes substantially after four months. But Ramirez said because the initial vaccination and remaining effectiveness of the booster is successful at keeping people out of hospitals, she’s not as worried about getting COVID-19.
“I guess the big question is, are we supposed to keep our COVID restrictions? Not Elon, but like the world,” Ramirez said. “Are we supposed to keep our COVID restrictions in place until we figure out vaccines that keep us continually protected from hospitalization and death year-round?”
Though Huber understands the urgency people feel to move on with the pandemic, she said continuing to mask is a minor concession.
“Masking seems like a small thing that people can do to make it possible for everyone to get on with their lives,” Huber said.