Will CDC’s new guidance lead colleges to impose mask mandates?

Variant's spread, lack of vaccinations cause new concerns
By: | July 29, 2021
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday recommended that vaccinated individuals put masks on indoors in regions with high COVID-19 cases, citing the severity and spread of the delta variant as well as unknowns about transmission.

After a relatively smooth spring and start to summer, delta’s spread among nearly half the counties in the U.S. and breakthrough infections prompted the CDC to change its guidance. Among new advisements, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said students, staff, faculty and visitors at all K-12 schools should mask up this fall. Walensky did not address higher education institutions specifically, though she did say all individuals who haven’t been vaccinated should be.

“This pandemic continues to pose a serious threat to the health of all Americans,” Walensky said. “The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it. This new science is worrisome. The CDC recommends fully vaccinated people wear masks in public indoor settings to help prevent the spread of the delta variant and protect others.”

Will the latest red flags and guidance prompt colleges to rethink strategies heading into fall? Many institutions removed mask mandates for fully vaccinated individuals even in recent weeks, largely following suggestions from the CDC. Given the new recommendations and the quick spread of the virus, it is likely they may have to reverse course again.

However, that could be more complex at publicly funded institutions in some states such as Texas and Florida, which have imposed bans on both vaccine and mask passports. Less than 15% of institutions (approximately 600) have vaccine mandates in place. An executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott, for example, has given Lone Star institutions few choices when it comes to mask-wearing: namely, encourage them or don’t. That includes both the University of Texas, which has a mask-optional policy, and Texas State University, which this week reacted quickly to the news of the spreading Delta variant.

“The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is increasing again, and we must take steps to protect ourselves and others,” Dr. Emilio Carranco, Chief Medical Officer and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Texas State University, said in a statement to the community. “Face masks have proven very effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 on our campuses. During this COVID-19 surge, the university recommends that everyone, vaccinated and unvaccinated, wear face masks indoors. When the COVID-19 situation improves and transmission levels return to low levels, this extra safety measure can be discontinued.”

Two universities in Louisiana—one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots—decided to adapt their policies this week and mandate masks again. Xavier University will require them on campus both indoors and out, while Loyola University will require them in classrooms and public spaces. Institutions including community colleges in some areas such as Los Angeles, where new county mask mandates are in place, have followed that guidance, too.

Even without mandates, 63% of 2,000 students surveyed in a poll recently by platform Intelligent.com said they would wear masks this fall. That surprisingly included the majority of students in the South and those who are politically conservative. Around two-thirds said they would wear them at campus parties and in classrooms. However, 43% of non-vaccinated said they would not wear masks.

“New data shows that this reckless viewpoint [careless partying, unmasking and lack of social distancing] has changed significantly in the past year, if it was ever entirely true at all,” study authors noted. “Regardless of region, political affiliation, or even school rules, the majority of college students say they will voluntarily wear a mask at all times on campus this fall and that recommendations from the CDC are the most important factor in this decision.”