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Faculty members push back against Boston College’s decision not to require masks in classrooms

The Boston College campusDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

More than 200 Boston College faculty members are protesting the university’s decision not to mandate masks in classrooms this fall, a policy that sets it apart from most area colleges and universities as the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, even among the vaccinated, stokes new health fears.

“BC’s policy appears to impose avoidable risks on faculty, their families, and the students and other clients that they serve,” the faculty wrote Sunday in an open letter to BC administrators. “It introduces unnecessary complexity into classroom relationships.”

All fully vaccinated faculty, staff, and students are not required to wear masks on campus, including in offices and classrooms, according to the college’s website. However, those with university-approved vaccination exemptions, as well as guests visiting Boston College who are not fully vaccinated, must wear masks outdoors and in all campus buildings.


Boston College, whose main campus straddles the border between Newton and Boston, also must abide by the mask mandates ordered by those cities for indoor spaces that are open to the public.

The Delta variant now accounts for the vast majority of new COVID cases. Although most fully vaccinated people are protected against serious illness if infected, the highly contagious variant is more transmissible than the flu, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BC spokesman Jack Dunn cited the college’s vaccination rate of 99 percent for students, faculty, and staff as a reason for not implementing a classroom mask mandate. The university, which has an ongoing testing program, remains prepared to revise the policy if needed, he said.

Despite the high vaccination rate, the faculty members cited health concerns among colleagues who have unvaccinated children at home; older faculty and staff, including those with underlying health conditions; and students who interact with unvaccinated children in off-campus schools and clinical settings.


“Given the dangers from the Delta variant of COVID-19, and given the measures that are being taken throughout the state and at peer institutions, BC’s policy is difficult to understand,” the faculty wrote.

In and near Boston, students at institutions such as Harvard, BU, MIT, Northeastern, Suffolk, Tufts, and the University of Massachusetts Boston are required to wear masks in the classroom, with limited exceptions, according to the university websites.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said that Boston College should take an extra step and mandate masks in its classrooms. Newton’s public health team plans to make that request on Wednesday in a meeting with BC officials, she added.

“This would be a wonderful and important public health step to help all of us in the broader community,” Fuller said. “We are respectfully requesting that Boston College expand the good steps that they have already taken ... and that masks be required in all indoor spaces on the campus regardless of vaccination status.”

Acting Mayor Kim Janey of Boston did not directly address the BC policy. A City Hall spokesman said college classrooms do not fall under Boston’s reinstated mask mandate for indoor public places, but that Janey “encourages everyone to wear a mask when indoors to protect both yourself and other people from spreading the COVID-19 Delta variant.”

Newton will require masks in indoor public venues beginning Thursday.

BC’s policy to allow students to attend classes without masks was underscored over the weekend by an e-mail distributed by the Rev. Gregory Kalscheur, dean of the university’s Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences.


“Faculty members are free to encourage or invite students to wear masks should students be more comfortable doing so, but it is not appropriate for them to require students to do so,” Kalscheur wrote Saturday, according to a report in The Heights, the campus newspaper.

A member of the BC community who asked not to be identified confirmed the accuracy of The Heights report.

The e-mail followed a request by Prasannan Parthasarathi, the chair of the history department, that students wear masks beginning Monday.

“By wearing masks, we look beyond ourselves and protect those who are immuno-compromised and children who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, both in our community at Boston College and in the Boston and Newton communities that the university is part of,” Parthasarathi wrote Friday to history students, according to an unidentified faculty member.

Dunn said Boston College has been in the vanguard in seeking ways to provide a broad college experience while keeping the campus safe.

“We were the first college or university in Boston to announce last spring that we would mandate vaccinations ... and we worked diligently throughout the spring and summer to achieve compliance,” Dunn said.

“We are anomalous in that we have such a high vaccination rate on our campus. For the time being and subject to change, we are not requiring masks in our classrooms but are encouraging people to wear them if they prefer to do so,” he added.


However, one faculty member pointed to the rising numbers of breakthrough cases in which fully vaccinated people are contracting the Delta variant and transmitting it to others.

“While everyone [at BC] is vaccinated, the Delta variant doesn’t care if you’re vaccinated or not,” said the professor, who asked not to be identified. “My concern is that there is going to be an outbreak on campus. Many of these people have dealings within their families and communities, and we could be part of community spread.”

Dennis Wieboldt, a BC student who is chair of the Boston Intercollegiate Government, which represents the interests of 130,000 college students in the area, said he does not think a mask mandate is warranted in class.

“The vaccination protocol has been adhered to very strictly,” Wieboldt said. “BC has the medical infrastructure in place to adapt quickly should the circumstances on campus change.”

Wieboldt said professors have been having individual conversations with students about COVID precautions. In one recent history class, he said, every student chose to wear a mask.

Overall, however, only about 10 percent of BC students are doing so in the classroom, Wieboldt estimated.

Jack Bracher, the BC student government president, said he feels safe without wearing a mask in class, and that stopping short of a mandate is contributing to a renewed sense of normalcy.

“We’re in a good position for this,” Bracher said. “After a year in which the participation in our community was restricted, students are really excited to be actively participating once again.”


Dr. A. David Paltiel, a public health professor at Yale University who has been studying how colleges can reopen safely, stressed that the vaccine is “by far the single biggest determinant of safety on campus.”

“Schools that can achieve a high vaccination rate — about 90 percent — should be able to return to some normalcy,” he said. “BC has a high vaccination rate, so they’re taking care of job No. 1.”

Still, even if the campus population is almost entirely vaccinated, there is no harm in taking further steps to impede the spread of the virus, he said.

“I think they’re going to be OK, but they’re pushing it,” he said of BC.

Globe Correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.