Why 3 big universities are removing masks and why one is keeping them on

Case counts are trending downward nationally, but some campuses are still experiencing spikes of COVID-19.

Mississippi is among three states ranking last in the United States for residents receiving two-dose vaccinations for COVID-19 at 50%. Alabama and Wyoming are the others. But improving numbers around new positive cases and hospitalizations in the state, which have dropped 31% in the past two weeks, are providing the linchpin for further reopenings.

At the University of Mississippi that means the loosening of mask requirements, which took effect on Monday. Face coverings still will be necessary in classrooms, labs and in its healthcare facilities but not in residence halls, libraries, student unions, offices or recreation buildings.

“We are certainly in a different place this spring than we were in spring 2020 or even spring 2021,” Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce said in a statement. “We have robust testing and we have safe, effective, widely available vaccines that reduce the severity of illness and the risk of hospitalization for those infected. We have developed protocols that are proven to be effective when we experience a surge in cases. We have also seen our case counts reduce significantly from the beginning of the semester to today.”

However, in his message to staff, faculty, students and alumni, Boyce did point out two key details that his campus and others pushing to further reopen should consider:

  • The continued empathy toward others who might be at higher risk for developing severe outcomes, so masking and allowing some safety measures should continue. Mississippi said faculty and staff can use plexiglass to protect them in teaching or workspaces and can require guests to wear masks.
  • Ensuring that populations are being safe when heading into the community. Certain towns and cities in Mississippi are still seeing 50% or more increases in positive cases and some have as few as 34% of residents fully vaccinated.

More from UB: Could colleges embrace far fewer COVID-19 protocols by the fall?

Other institutions across the country are seeing case counts decline and opting to lift some of the requirements as they see case counts drop, knowing too that more severe outcomes from omicron are not nearly as widespread as delta. Public universities in Oregon may see all of the mask restrictions end by March 31. In other places, it is happening much more quickly.

The University of Nevada, effectively getting the green light from the state higher education commission, has lifted its mask mandate for all individuals inside buildings, including those who are unvaccinated. Like Boyce, President Brian Sandoval is strongly urging continued hygiene measures and also steering clear of “criticism, judgment or retaliation” for those who wear masks. But as of now and until there are new large upticks in cases, the university cannot impose mask-wearing.

“Individual NSHE institutions do not currently retain the authority to unilaterally impose more stringent face-covering requirements beyond Nevada law,” he wrote, citing Gov. Steve Sisolak’s recent lifting of mask mandates. “Stricter face-covering requirements, according to NSHE’s legal determination, involve systemwide policy decisions that fall outside of an individual institution’s discretion.”

Montana State University also removed its mask requirements this week and the state’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton Christian, said institutions should end other restrictions as soon as possible, including those affecting travel and events. “After nearly two years of grappling with COVID-19, there is no doubt that we are seeing positive trends on our campuses, across Montana, and throughout the country,” he said. “Just as we have intensified our COVID-19 restrictions and protocols during times of increasing threat, we should respond to the improving conditions we see today by easing COVID-19 restrictions and protocols on our campuses.”

Although there are outliers, most college campuses are mirroring the declines in positive cases experienced by communities across the country, where all 50 states are reporting significant drops.

  • At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, positive case counts have dropped by one-half in the past month.
  • At the University of Washington, there were 19 total cases earlier this week compared with more than 200 in January
  • Penn State University had 128 cases during the week of Jan. 31-Feb. 6, down from 631 from Jan. 17 to Jan. 23.
  • At the University of Texas at Austin, cases fell from 122 on Jan. 10 to 35 on Feb 10. Still, its student government and senate have raised concerns about opening up campus further, launching a petition to try to get the university to increase its mitigation efforts.

But there are campuses still struggling to deal with omicron. At Brown University in Rhode Island, 361 students and 10 faculty members tested positive over the past week, a significant jump over the previous two weeks. So Brown is keeping masks on, although it is allowing for its departments to conduct recruiting face-to-face and for job candidates to be interviewed. “As members of the community are aware, many states, including Rhode Island, have made recent announcements regarding loosening or eliminating indoor mask-wearing requirements,” Russell Carey, Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy, wrote to the Brown community. “We are not yet at that point.”

Brown can keep operations going safely because it has that mask requirement and because 96% of all students have complied with the two-dose vaccine schedule and the university’s booster requirement, which further protects them from the most severe outcomes, according to national public health experts.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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