Some Massachusetts universities have announced they will ease COVID-19 measures, such as mandatory testing and masking, on their campuses.
Northeastern University, Emerson College, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Lasell University all recently announced changes to their protocols.
And some experts say that it’s time.
“I think it’s overdue,” said Dr. Shira Doron, an attending physician at Tufts Medical Center. “I was really disappointed to see that a number of colleges had some remote classes in January. I thought that was a mistake especially given that all of them have at least a vaccine requirement if not a booster requirement.”
Reinstating requirements such as mandatory testing and masks, Doron said, should only occur if a new variant emerges that is “immune, evasive, and more severe.”
Dr. Matthew Fox, a professor in the departments of epidemiology and global health at Boston University, said this is an appropriate time to ease restrictions generally, though college campuses may require a different approach.
“My feeling with universities is I think it’s going to be on a case-by-case basis, and I think there’s nothing wrong with that,” Fox said. “Some may want to keep masking and testing in place for a longer period of time, and to me, that’s not unreasonable given the challenges of trying to maintain a residential population.”
Northeastern will no longer require students, faculty, and staff to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing as of Monday university officials said Friday.
Testing for asymptomatic people will become optional next Monday, but testing for symptomatic individuals will still be required, according to an e-mail from Provost David Madigan and Chancellor Ken Henderson.
The switch is “guided by science and informed by the most relevant data available,” the e-mail said.
Students will only be required to fill out a daily wellness check when checking in for a test, and the university will discontinue its COVID-19 testing dashboard next Monday, the e-mail said.
The university is evaluating masking requirements.
“Decisions to lift indoor mask requirements are informed by local public health guidelines,” the e-mail said. “The City of Boston has yet to lift its indoor mask requirements.”
Northeastern has lifted masking requirements at other campuses such as Nahant, Burlington, and Portland.
High vaccination rates on college campuses and students’ ages, Fox said, point to why it’s reasonable to pull back restrictions.
“But the challenge for universities is going to be that you’ve got to watch the numbers both within your institution and outside in the surrounding community to get a sense for how much the risk is for an outbreak,” Fox said.
The University of Massachusetts Lowell announced Friday that it is ending its indoor mask mandate for all campus locations next Monday. Masks will still be required on university buses and shuttles and in the campus wellness center, the university said in a statement.
The university noted that the Lowell campus is “near-universally vaccinated and increasingly boosted” as more people become eligible for boosters. It also cited the availability of higher-grade masks, antigen tests, and declining levels of COVID-19 detected in Boston-area wastewater.
Emerson College said Friday that it will shift to a “mask optional” policy in indoor spaces on its Boston campus on March 21 for vaccinated and boosted people except in classrooms, the health and wellness center, and the counseling center.
The college said this is the first step toward “a goal of being fully mask-optional across campus on May 16.
On Tuesday, the college will also allow fully vaccinated and boosted guests into the residence halls. Spaces that had been operating at reduced capacity will return to full capacity starting May 16. Emerson will continue weekly COVID testing but may consider shifting to an optional testing policy later in the semester if the positive test rate remains low.
The shift marks the beginning of Emerson’s transition toward “an approach in which it responds to the ebb and flow of the COVID virus as part of institutional operations,” William Gilligan, Emerson’s interim president, and Erik Muurisepp, the college’s COVID lead and associate vice president of campus life, said in the announcement.
Lasell University in Newton said that, as of Saturday, the campus is now “mask optional,” for vaccinated people, but masks are still required during classes. Weekly testing is also no longer required for vaccinated students, faculty, and staff.
The university noted the new guidance is in line with the city of Newton, which lifted its indoor mask mandate on Friday.
Doron said dropping the mask mandate at certain universities aligns with the state’s updated mask guidance and with the fact that several cities and towns do not mandate masks.
“So you can go to a bar; you can go to a sporting event; you can go to a concert without a mask,” she said. “Why then would we say that a college classroom is a place that should have ... a mask mandate? That’s backwards. That’s backwards public health.”