8 major universities from SEC will require masks for fall

Alabama, Kentucky are latest to impose requirements.
By: | August 6, 2021
Photo courtesy of the University of Kentucky

Two of the most powerful institutions in the nation from the stout Southeastern Conference—the University of Kentucky and the University of Alabama—both announced within the past 24 hours that they will be requiring masks on campus this fall for students, faculty and staff members.

The rapid emergence and spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 prompted mandates from leaders at each university, who are aiming for a safe return to campuses this fall. Their states have seen positive cases soar in the past few weeks. In the past month, Alabama’s 7-day average has increased from around 270 per day to 2,700, while Kentucky’s also has risen tenfold.

“The consensus was clear that mandatory indoor masking is a prudent and appropriate step, given rising rates of COVID-19 infections, dominated by a more transmissible variant,” Kentucky President Eli Capilouto wrote in a letter to his community. “Let me be clear: The most important protection against the virus remains vaccines. Nothing else is close. The science is unequivocal on that fact.”

Capilouto noted that UK’s students and faculty have done well to get vaccinated, with more than 70% reporting they’ve received preventive doses, though it is still short of its target of 80%. The state’s fully vaccinated rate is still just over 46%. The University of Alabama also says its numbers are better than the state’s, of which only 34.6% of the population has completed doses. Neither institution has a vaccine mandate in place.

“Our vaccine numbers among faculty and staff are strong—the percentage vaccinated more than doubles the statewide number,” said Dr. Ricky Friend, the University of Alabama’s Dean of the College of Community Health Sciences. “We are still learning about students who were vaccinated over the summer and will be offering expanded opportunities for vaccination as classes approach. Again, vaccination is key.”

In the meantime, as both universities work toward increasing those who are vaccinated, they’ll turn to masks, at least temporarily.

Both policies allow for some flexibility in mask-wearing, even indoors. Kentucky and Alabama officials say that where populations are gathering, such as classrooms, in student centers and advising centers, masks will need to be worn. At Kentucky, however, those who are meeting in offices and are fully vaccinated will not need to wear them. Similarly, both campuses will allow students and faculty walking alone in buildings and those in residence hall rooms to be mask-free.

Alabama said it will review its mask policy two weeks after the start of the semester, while Kentucky said it will be more fluid in its response.

“As soon as we have tangible signs that the incidence of the virus is declining, as has been the case recently in other countries such as Great Britain, we hope to be positioned to remove this requirement,” Capilouto said. “The science and what we see on the ground will guide our actions. We will be nimble when we need to be, and we will always act thoughtfully and as quickly as possible to do what is in the best interests of our community.”

Kentucky said it will test all students coming to campus and may consider in the future mandatory vaccines and testing for faculty and staff.

Recognizing the contagiousness of the delta variant, the potential for breakthrough cases of COVID and the lack of full vaccinations, hundreds of colleges across the U.S. are installing mask mandates. That includes many that don’t have vaccine requirements, including the SEC’s Auburn University, Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Missouri.

Those concerns have prompted leaders to remind populations about the importance of masks and vaccines in helping surrounding areas around campuses and to make for a more normal experience in the fall.

“Once again, we live in a world fraught with anxiety, in which we seem to confront more unknowns than knowns,” Capilouto said. “That sense of uncertainty extends beyond the borders of our campus. It’s in our homes and in our schools. We worry about our children and our loved ones. While we take care of each other on our campus, we must also extend that sense of concern and compassion to our extended community as well. I believe we can still have that experience and the year that we all want. We are facing a formidable foe in this virus. It’s a foe that we can only defeat together. I know that we can. I know that we will.”