A Mask Mandate Lifted: Students Respond to COVID Policy Changes at Clark

Jason Shrem

After a full academic week of optional mask-wearing indoors (except for classrooms) at Clark University, students, faculty, and staff are exploring the transition to a new normal on campus. 

On March 4, an email was sent out to the Clark community from the President’s Office. The message explained that on March 21, Clark would make masking and testing entirely optional. In the days that followed some students and faculty strongly criticized the move, citing remaining safety concerns. Just three days before the scheduled date for the change, on March 18, a second email was sent from President David Fithian’s Office. Fithian introduced a change to the plan that acknowledged student concerns: masking would still become optional indoors everywhere on campus, except for classrooms. Fithian pledged to evaluate Clark’s COVID progress again on April 1. 

The week of March 21 is now behind us, and with the mandate lifted, students have been able to give their thoughts on indoor masking at Clark.

One student revealed their thoughts about what they observed during day one of the new masking guidelines at Clark. The student said, “I saw a lot of people wearing masks. I would say about 95 percent of students and staff had them on, and I believe that’s an okay thing. I think everyone should continue to be vigilant, considering not everyone on campus is young and/or fully vaccinated.” 

The transition to optional mask-wearing also included the decision to move COVID-19 testing to fully optional. The testing center – which many students called a valuable resource –  will remain open for the semester. But how do students feel about no longer getting tested? 

One said, “I’m a little put off about that decision. I think everyone should continue to get tested at least once a week. If cases go up, then I think testing should obviously become mandatory again.” This student was not the only one who felt testing should continue to be mandatory. The date for optional mask-wearing in classrooms was pushed back because of a popular student petition, saying they were just too uncomfortable with the loose guidelines. The university recognized the students, faculty, and staff who felt they would be more vulnerable to the virus if masks were entirely removed indoors. In response, Clark administrators will decide by April 1 whether to change the guidelines. Any changes, they said, would be implemented the following Monday, April 4. 

In response to Clark’s decision to acknowledge those who are feeling rather worrisome about the transition, one student said, “It was understandable. I suppose if you are the university administration, you have to make compromises. I think masking in classrooms can be considered a risk, and the decision to push the date for that back is somewhat fair.”

The changes have brought mixed feelings for many. Some are still primarily concerned about COVID testing being made optional. 

On Friday, March 25, a “Healthy Clark Update” was sent to the university community via email. The announcement said that 16 positive tests had returned in the first week of changed COVID protocols. According to the Dashboard, the campus positivity rate had risen to 1.30% that week (3/20 – 3/26). In the week prior – when testing was mandatory – just 0.17% of tests came back positive.

Many Clarkies believe the decision for optional testing makes it more difficult to track cases for COVID-19. At this point, the only way to determine if people are getting the virus is by closely monitoring “residence halls, academic courses, employee departments, and athletic teams where close contact may occur,” according to the email sent out by University Announcements on March 25.

Most students at Clark, along with faculty and staff, continued to wear their masks in indoor spaces during week one of the new guidelines. Because of the spike in cases, it is unclear what will happen in the university’s transition of policy moving forward. University administrators say they are closely monitoring the situation. Their April 1 decision on what to do with Clark’s COVID protocols will likely reveal how they evaluate the danger of the ongoing case spike.