Unmasked: Dozens of colleges halt COVID-19 mandates as stealth variant rises

Mask mandates are being lifted on many private and public university campuses, but will that change?

Even the earliest and staunchest proponents of COVID-19 protocols in higher education are relenting on mask-wearing, prompted largely by state and local health officials’ decisions to lower COVID-19 risk levels.

Northeastern University, Ohio University, Kansas State University and the University of Maryland at College Park are among the institutions in the past few days that have opted to eliminate the majority of facial covering mandates. “Our cases have continued to trend down since January 5, a pattern that is happening across the United States,” Ohio University President Hugh Sherman and two other officials told the OU community. “The sustained downward trend, paired with this new CDC guidance and OHIO’s strong COVID-19 vaccination rate (92%), gives us the confidence to relax face-covering requirements on OHIO campuses.”

Ohio University will still keep masks on in classrooms, labs and other health areas plus campus transportation. Ohio U. may install its own mask policies at large gatherings. Syracuse University said it won’t do that for vaccinated individuals at events held at the Carrier Dome. “This action represents the latest step in the university’s ongoing efforts to transition its public health strategy from pandemic to endemic disease response,” Syracuse Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation Mike Haynie said in a statement.

More from UB: Will stealth variant and spring break bring a huge college COVID surge?

However, two considerations worth noting as other college leaders make decisions that may impact campuses over the coming weeks – spring breaks are here or on the way, and so is the new stealth variant. In the past week, omicron spinoff cases across the U.S. have doubled again to 8%, almost mirroring the pattern of its predecessor. In the past two weeks, it was 2%, then 3.8%. It has been spotted now in all 50 states.

Though campuses have been quick to pivot when needed, weary faculty, students and staff might not be as keen to embrace them in the future given the opportunity to reopen and because the first iteration of omicron produced few severe outcomes for those free of comorbidities. It is still unclear whether the stealth variant will present harsh outcomes. Nineteen states still have less than 60% of their populations fully vaccinated (not including booster shots), according to New York Times data.

Still, with cases dropping consistently and hospitalizations also declining, institutions such as Marquette University are taking the opportunity to lift some restrictions. Marquette will be far more wide-open than others that are still keeping masks on in some classroom and lab settings. The only mask requirements remain in health-care settings, testing sites and its child-care center. “While there is no longer an indoor mask requirement on campus, any community member who feels more comfortable wearing a mask is encouraged to do so,” officials said. Marquette’s decision comes not only on the heels of Milwaukee’s low positivity rates but also its own campus rates of less than 1% and with almost all of its population having gotten two vaccine doses and boosters.

Ithaca College in New York, one of the early adopters of mask and vaccine policies, will remove masks campus-wide Friday other than in health facilities and in classrooms where faculty require them. Faculty have been urged to let students know well in advance of those decisions. “If positive COVID-19 case numbers rise dramatically and there is significant evidence of higher levels of community transmission, face-covering mandates and modifications to our operating status may become necessary again, regardless of TCHD guidance for elsewhere in the local community,” said Samm Swarts, Ithaca’s Assistant Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response, said. “I urge our IC community to remain vigilant and committed to responsible behaviors and good public health practices that we know work.”

Other institutions are also lifting some mask policies. The State University of New York system is allowing individual colleges to make their own calls on removing them. Jamestown Community College was one of the first to sign on. A pair of institutions in Michigan also ended mandates – Grand Rapids Community College and Flint Hills Technical College. Meanwhile, the University of Arkansas, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Mississippi, Boston University, Elon University, Colgate University, Quinnipiac University all have or will adopt mask-optional policies.


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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