CDC: Most students at 6 big universities are wearing masks

The Centers for Disease Control offers 7 tips to ensure mandates are being followed on and off campus.
By: | February 9, 2021
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The messages and mandates on mask wearing are largely being heeded by students at six major universities, according to a comprehensive new study released by the Centers for Disease Control.

Of the more than 17,000 individuals in and around campuses observed by CDC-trained students during 2-week to 8-week periods in the fall, 85.5% wore masks and nearly 90% wore them properly.

Institutions that took part in the study included the University of Florida, Auburn University, the University of Georgia, West Virginia University, Colorado State University and University of Pikeville in Kentucky. UF researchers were pleased to see so many adhering to protocols. Some studies have shown a range of between 69% to 86% among the 18–29-year-old age group, according to the CDC.

“This study shows us that the university’s messaging about the need to wear a mask has been really effective,” Cindy Prins, UF’s principal investigator for the study and assistant dean for education at its College of Public Health and Health Professions, said in a statement to the university. “We also see faculty, staff and students in all areas who are modeling that behavior, and that has helped make it a norm. It’s just expected that you are going to wear your mask on the UF campus.”

Still concerning were the nearly 15% who didn’t wear them (or wear them properly) and were observed by 10 students from each university who were trained by the CDC to oversee students during this period – whether it was inside buildings on campus (recreation centers, dining halls, lecture room hallways) or in nearby locations such as grocery stores and eateries where mask mandates were in effect because social distancing could not be maintained. That also included more confined outdoor spaces.

“What we have seen in popular media is a very visible, but small, proportion of students who are maybe going out to bars or gathering without masks,” Prins said. “But if you look at the overall population on campus, I do think this is reflective that the majority of students are taking precautions. It’s encouraging.”

What they’re wearing and how they’re wearing them

Not only is mask wearing essential to reduce the spread of COVID-19 says the CDC, but how masks are worn can be just as crucial. Individuals who continually pull them down to speak or don’t cover their nose are susceptible to both spreading and getting the virus. The CDC was hoping through its study to highlight trends among 18-24-year-olds, notably college populations because they comprise a big part of that age group, some 40%.

The report indicated those who donned masks indoors wore them properly 92% of the time. They chose a wide variety of styles – from N95s to cloth to bandanas and scarves. The overwhelming majority of those who wore N95s and cloth tended to wear them correctly, while less than 20% of those observed wearing bandanas or scarves did not. Most preferred to wear cloth (69%) or surgical masks (26%).

One of the limitations of the study was that although students were targeted by trained staff, some individuals such as staff, faculty or outsiders may have been included in the observations, though those numbers would be low. Still, the results were largely positive and showed that the messages in fact were working, especially indoors on campus, where mask wearing was close to 95%.

“Direct observation at six universities indicated that mask use was high on campuses in locations where masks were mandated,” the CDC noted in the report. “Mask use was similarly high at nearby, indoor off-campus locations where masks were mandated.” But it did say, “Mask use was lower outdoors in areas where use was mandated only when physical distancing could not be maintained.”

What should be on the radar

All of the universities that took part in the study plan to continue their work observing mask mandates during the spring semester.

Others across the country can follow the follow tips and recommendations from the CDC on what they can do to ensure that mask wearing protocols are being followed:

  1. Where individuals are not complying with mandates, institutions can look to enforce  penalties.
  2. Many colleges and universities have created signed waivers or agreements with students, who agree to follow COVID-19 protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing. It may be an option for your campus.
  3. Institutions should continue to get messages out to students in a variety of ways. Many experts have recommended over-messaging – not necessarily blitzing inboxes with emails but making that guidance known regularly and often on social media platforms, texts and through on-campus signage.
  4. Do your own investigation, as the universities did above with the CDC. Using resources and faculty, your institution could train a group of students as observers and then return with data each week to note potential trends or breaches. Make sure those observations meet certain standards and that your observers can stay somewhat hidden when reporting.
  5. Start a campuswide and graphic-based campaign that visually shows correct mask wearing, and improper mask wearing.
  6. Remember that mask wearing is just part of the overall strategy. It should go hand in hand with other safeguards, such as reducing the number of individuals in high-traffic spaces and the promotion of hygiene and testing.
  7. Work with local community leaders and businesses to ensure coherent messaging and adherence to mask mandates are being followed there as well.