The masks are coming off at some U.S. universities just as students begin to travel for the holidays and winter threatens a fresh surge of Covid.
Indoor-masking mandates are gone at Louisiana State, except for on campus buses, and for the vaccinated at Auburn University in Alabama. One may be lifted at Purdue University in Indiana come February. The University of Tennessee system ended its requirement last week, but the flagship Knoxville campus received an exemption to protect its status as a federal contractor.
Largely because of vaccinations, college students have lived a more normal campus experience compared with this time last year, when Covid-19 outbreaks were common. Still, as students head into Thanksgiving break, public-health officials worry that cases might increase as the weather becomes colder. Lifting indoor mask mandates may not help.
“I am concerned that we may face another reversal in the decline in cases like we did this summer when delta surfaced,” said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association Covid-19 task force.
The latest wave of infections in the U.S. is taxing intensive-care units, with parts of the country seeing outbreaks that equal previous peaks. In 15 states, Covid patients, most of them unvaccinated, are taking up more ICU beds than a year earlier. The crisis is especially acute in the Northeast.
Amid the surge, it’s not clear how many schools have dropped masking requirements. The College Health Association, which is surveying members on masks, recommends that they be worn in indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status, given that some schools can’t ask students whether they’ve had their shots.
Masks are still mandated at the University of Michigan, where a “large and sudden” increase in influenza among students drew the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to campus. About 98% of students reported being vaccinated for Covid-19 at the Ann Arbor school, but the county is still at a level of transmission rated high by the CDC. Indeed, Michigan has the highest per-capita case rate in the nation.
“Local transmission levels would need to return to low or moderate levels in order for masking to be reconsidered,” said Rick Fitzgerald, a university spokesman.
Transmission rates have risen to high from moderate in Knox County, where students had a short reprieve from the mask policy at the University of Tennessee.
Maxwell Hawkins, a political-science major, said most students weren’t following masking requirements outside classrooms where faculty enforced it. “I would walk into the library on campus and I’d say a solid 20% of students were wearing a mask,” he said.
Last week, Hawkins said, he saw his professors’ faces for the first time. They disappeared again soon after. Hawkins, president of the university’s chapter of College Republicans, said students in his group were outraged. “They had freedom for six hours,” he said.
At Louisiana State in Baton Rouge, transmission rates are moderate in the parish that includes the school. The university says 84% of students and 79% of employees are vaccinated, more than the surrounding area. Critics say that’s not enough.
“Completely lifting the mask mandate is asking for a rise in cases,” said Mandisa Kunene, a 22-year-old senior who studies architecture.
However, Kunene said her perspective is rare: “Generally, more people are happy that they don’t have to wear masks anymore.”
She would have felt more comfortable if the university changed the rules at the end of the semester, instead of just before students leave for the holidays.
Some colleges may be waiting until the semester wraps up before deciding on a indoor mask policy for next term, said Ann Bernhardt, research coordinator for the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina, which has been tracking higher-education responses to the pandemic.
“We’re not sure what is motivating some of these schools to make these decisions now,” Bernhardt said.