Masking in classrooms ended on March 21, following Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair’s announcement that the mask mandate in indoor spaces would be gradually lifted beginning March 7. This decision follows a trend both locally and nationally of loosening mask restrictions.
While Georgia never had a statewide mask mandate, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens allowed Atlanta’s to expire March 3. This lift follows a trend of democratic-leaning cities ending their mask mandates nationwide. Many Republican-leaning cities haven’t had mandates in place throughout the pandemic
However, eliminating the mask mandate sparked contention in democratic-leaning areas. When California lifted their school mask mandate on March 11, some school districts kept their mandate intact. New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ lift of the mask sent in public schools also elicited a mixed response.
Despite these trends, St. Clair told the Wheel that the driving factor of Emory’s COVID-19 decisions are not other states’ actions. If other states were to reinstate masking, that wouldn’t necessarily mean a change for the University.
He noted that Emory’s geographical location impacts COVID-19 guidelines based on case and vaccination rates in Atlanta.
DeKalb County cases are trending downward, averaging 63 cases a day as of March 20. Statewide, there are only eight cases per 100,000 people, which is low compared to other states.
The Georgia State Senate passed the Unmask Georgia Students Act on March 1, which does not lift school district mandates but allows parents to choose whether or not to send their children to school in a mask. The bill is currently in the House, but has not been passed yet.
Like the trends seen in democratic-leaning cities, however, the University’s removal of the classroom mask mandate is evoking mixed thoughts.
Professor of Sociology Frank Lechner is pleased with Emory removing the mask mandate.
“I support the decision and I think it’s overdue,” Lechner said, “I don’t think we’ve ever had a presentation of evidence of specifically the net benefits of masks.”
Sam Goldstone (25C) also supports the mandate being lifted, noting that Emory’s 98.7% vaccination installments for students who completed their primary vaccination series decreases their risk of severe illness. As for students who are up-to-date on vaccinations, that’s at 90.7%.
“There’s a simple scientific solution,” Goldstone said. “Get vaccinated.”
Goldstone also cited inconsistencies in COVID-19 guidelines as reason for why lifting the mask mandate was necessary.
“Masks haven’t been required in the dorms since August,” Goldstone said. “It’s the place where we see each other the most.”
Lechner also expressed discontent with inconsistencies in masking requirements. He noted that varsity athletes were not required to wear masks during practice while other Emory students had to wear masks in the gym.
Both Goldstone and Lechner mentioned how masking guidelines felt part of “political theater” by the Emory administration.
Lechner said that the mask mandate lift was a “step away from the theatrical aspect.” However, he is supportive of the new guidelines allowing “people who feel vulnerable to protect themselves” by wearing masks if they choose.
Associate Professor of History Judith Miller sees lifting the mandate as a “risky and unfortunate policy,” especially due to the laughed in the BA.2 variant in the United States.
“As someone who’s immunocompromised, I’ve just been kicked to the curb,” Miller said. “The classrooms I teach in are not safe.”
Additionally, Alena Song (25C) said the decision to lift the mask mandate makes her “nervous.”
“Aside from being physically sick, COVID wreaked havoc on my social and mental health,” Song said.
Now that the mask mandate is lifted, St. Clair stated he is focused on how to support the community going forward. He said that additional resources, communications, webinars and other forms of support may be needed to encourage the community to be active participants in new guidelines.
Executive Director of Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz encouraged students to remain vigilant about monitoring COVID-19 exposure and symptoms.
“Isolation and quarantine is not going away, testing is not going away,” Rabinovitz said.
Miller cited Emory’s lack of required testing as a “big missing piece” of their COVID response. She said she’s heard from her own students that they either test off-campus or don’t test at all to avoid isolation procedures.
“That I find incredibly concerning,” Miller said.
Operating status at Emory is still yellow, although Emory Forward is “assessing changes to the operating model,” according to St. Clair. Masks are optional indoors, meaning students and faculty are welcome to engage in their preferred level of protection.
For Miller, she’s seen the effectiveness of masks in her own classroom.
“I’ll be a faculty member who wears a mask for the rest of my career,” Miller said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic still maintains a public health crisis globally, case levels in the United States continue to decline. At Emory, cases have remained low since the announcement.
For the future, Emory’s COVID-19 team wants to “empower the individual to make decisions,” according to St. Clair. Overall, he hopes the Emory community will learn to “live responsibly with COVID-19.”