Why 2 big universities are powering through COVID-19 without masks while others can’t

Surges of positive cases from the BA.2 variant haven't stopped some institutions from remaining mask-optional.
By: | April 18, 2022
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The state of Michigan remains one of the nation’s hotspots for COVID-19, with cases climbing more than 145% in the past two weeks. And yet, colleges and universities there remain undeterred in keeping masks off for indoor locations as they strive to finish the semester in a “new normal” mode.

Though the University of Michigan saw 510 positive cases during its last reporting period for a 3.2% positivity rate—its highest since late January—it simply sent a warning to its community last Thursday saying that most cases on campus were mild, while encouraging vaccinations and masking. Late last week, Michigan State University announced it would keep its vaccine mandate for next year but decided to lift its mask policy. After a spike to start the semester, case counts have remained fairly low with a 1.3% positivity, and its county hasn’t seen the same surge as the rest of the state.

“It is clear our COVID‑19 mitigation efforts were successful in allowing MSU to continue most in-person classes and activities safely,” President Samuel Stanley said in a statement. “We continue to see a sustained drop in COVID‑19 cases on campus, and with the wide availability of PCR, antigen and home testing in the community, the EDP and Clinical Center testing that was crucial to our success earlier in the pandemic can safely be discontinued now. As we have since early 2020, we will continue to monitor and respond to the pandemic as necessary.”

Those final keywords are being used by many campus leaders in their announcements—whether they lift masks, keep them on or return to wearing them. Their ability to pivot when necessary has been crucial to keeping operations—and especially face-to-face learning—going through the academic year. University of Connecticut leaders, feeling a bit more uneasy about the state of cases, reinstated mask mandates for all of their campuses Monday because of a 54% rise in COVID-positive results across the state, including more than 150 cases at UConn. Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs Carl Lejuez said, “As always, the university adjusts its public health measures based on circumstances and available data.”

While the University of Michigan has fought through those cases to try to get to the end of the semester with masks optional—banking on vaccinations, current isolation space and the availability of testing—schools such as UConn, Georgetown, American University and others are wary of spikes that could impact major events over the next few weeks. “The goal of this decision is to protect health on our campuses and to help ensure that the remaining weeks of the semester and UConn’s commencement ceremonies can be conducted in person,” Lejuez said. “A widespread outbreak that overwhelms university health services and available isolation space could potentially disrupt both.”

Other key variables drive decisions

In Connecticut, one of the major considerations for the return of masks is that hospitalizations have risen by 24% in the state, a pattern that has emerged over the past two weeks across the Northeast, where New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York state have experienced similar increases. Columbia University was one of several institutions in the New York City area to reinstate masks, with cases spiking 57%, though the city hasn’t yet been hit by soaring hospitalizations.

“Continued caution in certain situations remains extremely important, particularly in indoor social settings when the vaccination status of attendees is unknown or uncertain,” Donna Lynne, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Columbia, said in a statement.

Public health officials across other urban areas also expressed concern before last weekend, especially with gatherings occurring around Passover and Easter. In Philadelphia, institutions have had no choice but to put masks back on after the city opted to make them mandatory in indoor spaces. Cases in Pennsylvania have jumped 100%, and in tightly packed Philadelphia they are up 81%. Temple, Drexel and St. Joseph’s all were forced to reinstate requirements Monday.

“We realize the city’s requirements may be frustrating. However, we must take seriously the guidance from local public health authorities,” Cary Anderson, Vice President for Student Life and Associate Provost at St. Joseph’s University, told students. “Hopefully, we will be able to return to a mask-optional situation as soon as possible.”

The surge of the BA.2 subvariant of omicron doesn’t seem to be waning. More than 30 states have seen cases spike in the past 14 days and they are notably high in the aforementioned states, as well as Delaware (+87%), Maryland (+83%), Washington (+77%) and Kansas (+70%). While individual institutions have put masks back on because of rising cases on campuses, including Bowdoin in Maine, DePaul in Illinois and Skidmore in upstate New York, the majority of institutions that removed masks are, like Michigan, keeping them off.

Brown University is sticking with its COVID-19 mask-optional policy despite the in-state increases and 150 positive cases on campus. “We’re going to be watching very carefully,” Russell Carey, Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey, said in a statement. “We’re seeing a continuation of what we expected, after a break, after people travel. But we’re not at this time making any changes to campus policies or protocols.”

Two key messages that institutions continue to impart—regardless of which side of the mask decisions leaders fall—are that students, staff and faculty should continue to get vaccinated, including boosters, and that those who are subject to quarantine wear masks for five more days even after their isolation period ends. A new study out of Boston University, in fact, showed that 17% of students who self-tested after the fifth day were still positive and potentially still able to transmit the virus.