‘Berg community reacts to flexible masking

Concerns about community and safety come into conversation in the wake of the March 7 masking policy change.

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Students gathering in Seegers in the wake of the masking policy change. Photo by Rebecca Clark '23.

On Mar. 3, members of the Muhlenberg community received an email from the College with the subject line “COVID-19 Masking Policy Update.” This message announced the change to a flexible masking policy to be instituted beginning on Mar. 7. This came a mere three days after the official implementation of the Yellow Phase.

Originally, the Yellow Phase was announced on Feb. 25 in an email from President Kathleen Harring. The regulations stated that, “Masks will still be required indoors for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status. There is discretion given to faculty in classroom settings, employees in their private offices and flexibility with regard to meetings as well as student club and organization rehearsals and performances.”

The Yellow Phase was the standard during the fall 2021 semester. But it lasted only a week this semester, beginning on Feb. 28 and ending on Mar. 7. As of this Monday, the College has moved to “flexible masking,” wherein masks are required only in healthcare settings, such as the Health Center, and for individuals who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 for a full ten days after their onset of symptoms or their exposure. As far as masking in classrooms is concerned, that is left up to the discretion of individual instructors. 

For now, the policy within many classroom spaces seems to be largely unchanged. The main factor for this decision, according to many professors, is the upcoming break. “While I acknowledge that numbers of cases are significantly down in the Lehigh Valley and around the country, and I can see the interest in moving towards a more flexible masking policy on campus, I feel the timing is unfortunate,” stated Eileen McEwan, Ph.D., associate professor of French & francophone studies. “We are about to go on spring break in a week and many of us will be spending time or living with elderly parents and grandparents, young children under five who can’t be vaccinated, immunocompromised individuals, and other more vulnerable populations. I believe it is in their interests and for their protection that we should remain masked in the classroom until spring break and at least one week following our return.”

It’s really… a mess.

Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology

Emanuela Kucik, Ph.D., co-director of the Africana studies program and assistant professor of English and Africana studies, echoed this sentiment, stating, “I will be requiring masks in the classroom for next week and, at bare minimum, at least a few weeks after spring break – and, potentially, for the whole semester, depending on what the numbers look like after the break and moving forward. Once we get a sense of the COVID numbers in the weeks following spring break/following the masking changes across campus and around the country, then I can get a better sense of what we will do for the rest of the semester.” 

She added that this was a decision that she made with community wellness in mind, stating, “I am making all decisions with the goal of centering the needs of our most vulnerable community members. If that means we wear masks in my classrooms all semester, then that is what we will do. As I noted, I will read all of the data about the impact of the policy changes in the weeks following spring break, but my guiding priority through all of this will be centering the needs of those who are most vulnerable to COVID (and those who have family members who are particularly vulnerable).” 

To some faculty, this decision indicates that consideration for our more vulnerable community members has fallen by the wayside. “This policy change was executed without community consultation and consideration. This is not in keeping with community-like and community-minded practices, and [is] dangerous for institutions of higher learning like ours,” stated Janine Kay Gwen Chi, Ph.D., professor of sociology. “There should have been a more organized and thoughtful set of guidelines to have a more systematic roll-out of this change. Leaving individuals to decide for themselves creates confusion and misunderstandings… During this difficult period of the pandemic, we have seen the rapid erosion of accountability and trust in systematic processes. I fear that this most recent announcement further demonstrates this erosion.” 

“It’s really… a mess,” summarized Maura Finkelstein, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology.  “I’m really disappointed in this country in general. And I wish the College didn’t feel pressured to follow national trends… It’s disappointing that, as a collective, we are not doing better, but I will continue to require masking in my classroom, regardless of the country’s and college’s policies. I hope my colleagues will continue to do the same.”

If we’re figuring out this mask optional world, we need to do it as a community and we need to do it together.

Zaire Carter ’22

For students, negative opinions seemed to boil down to the speed at which this new policy was adopted. “I think it’s crazy how fast we moved from the yellow phase to the flexible indoor masking phase,” Sarah O’Sullivan ‘22 told The Weekly. “Personally I just had COVID-19 so I know how fast it is still spreading. So it’s a little bit intimidating but of course I’m happy to see my peers’ faces again and hoping for the best.” 

“I’m certainly surprised considering the quickness of it all,” Olivia Thiemann ‘24 echoed. “I think going from orange to yellow and still very much highly recommending the KN95 masks to going to optional masking is definitely surprising. I trust the school and their knowledge and their ability to keep track of the country’s COVID regulations. I’m hoping that this will be beneficial in every way possible. But I’m certainly expecting very mixed reactions from the student body and faculty.” 

Reactions have certainly been mixed. “I’d love to be in a place where I’m comfortable being unmasked in class, but I simply don’t think that we’re there yet,” Cailyn Murray ‘23 commented. “No matter what the school says, I will always feel a pang of fear and distress when I see a person walking around inside without a mask properly on their face.” This hesitation seems to have taken hold of a fair amount of the student body, especially in the wake of such a speedy change.

it’s a little bit intimidating but of course I’m happy to see my peers’ faces again and hoping for the best.

Sarah O’Sullivan ’22

Oyinkansola Adebajo ‘23, president of Muhlenberg Disability Advocacy Group (MDAG), said, “[This policy] feels rushed. I’m afraid that it leaves many disabled students behind, in an almost forgetful sense. However, I did talk to the dean [of students] about it and she was fairly understanding, mentioning Zoom classes and free masks and tests as options.”

Zaire Carter ‘22 said, “I’ve heard that most students are confused about why we didn’t wait until after break. I think those thoughts are completely valid. That was my thinking as well. At the end of the day, I don’t want anyone feeling targeted because they are or aren’t wearing a mask. If we’re figuring out this mask optional world, we need to do it as a community and we need to do it together.”

However, for others, this milestone indicates a positive step toward an exciting return to some degree of pre-pandemic normalcy. “I would like to take my mask off in classroom settings. For me, it is all about making the people around me feel comfortable, so if I get the sense that others around me would prefer to keep masks on then I will comply with that,” Rebekka Broyles ‘22 said. “That said, I do hope Muhlenberg goes back to maskless learning one day. I think there is still a slight disconnect when people wear masks, a subtle understanding that it is okay to talk but not to get too close. I also feel that one’s identity is both physically and emotionally lost when the bottom of their face is covered.”

In the end, it seems to come down to compassion and consideration for our college community. As Piper Ackerman ‘23 stated, “As Muhlenberg’s COVID policies change, it’s important that everyone does what makes them feel the safest and respects what makes others feel safe.”

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