Most private colleges extending mask mandates in face of persistent COVID infections

  • Mitch Mahoney, right, from Australia, works with students Kaia Brem and Madison Stover in a class at Mount Holyoke College in April. Private colleges are maintaining masking mandates to some degree this fall. GAzette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2022 8:31:47 PM

Anonymous surveys of students and instructors at Amherst College will determine if masks are required to be worn in specific instructional spaces on campus beginning Oct. 17, as other private colleges in Hampshire County extend their indoor mask mandates indefinitely.

Amherst College in late September announced the new policy that could make masks optional, though that will depend on the outcome of an anonymous survey to be conducted in each classroom or laboratory, either using handwritten responses to the question, “should masks be required in this class?” or an online template the college is providing.

“If anyone in the class, including the instructor, wants to continue with masking, then masks will be required,” wrote Catherine Epstein, provost and dean of the faculty, Liz Agosto, chief student affairs officer and dean of students, and Kate Harrington, chief human resources officer. “Additionally, even those classes that determine that masks will be optional will respect an individual’s choice to wear a mask.”

The communication from the college administrators notes that faculty are encouraged to revisit the initial decision with another survey in early November, and that mask rules will likely be more stringent following Thanksgiving break, due to anticipated traveling by students.

While the University of Massachusetts dropped masking requirements in early March, and didn’t bring them back for the fall semester, Hampshire College previously announced in August that masks would be required indoors for the entirety of the autumn.

For Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, masks are still being required in most indoor settings, including classrooms and laboratories.

Online dashboards show that COVID infections are still spreading, based on both PCR and rapid antigen tests. So far this fall, Amherst College has had 228 cases, 13 of which are active. At Smith, 53 cases were identified from Sept. 18 to Sept. 24, and UMass saw 253 cases during that same time frame.

Smith College gave its guidance on Sept. 13, with a letter from President Kathleen McCartney and David DeSwert, executive vice president for finance and administration

“Given the persistence of cases on campus to begin the academic term, we are extending the requirement to wear masks indoors during classes and at gatherings of 30 or more until further notice,” they wrote.

The correspondence was coupled with a mandate for all students to present proof of receiving the Pfizer or Moderna bivalent COVID-19 booster by Dec. 1, and information about both COVID-19 and flu vaccine clinics. There is a strong recommendation for faculty and staff to also get the new COVID-19 boosters that target the omicron variant.

A Sept. 28 letter from Beverly Daniel Tatum, Mount Holyoke College’s interim president, notes that indoor masking will remain in place, even though it had been set to expire at the end of that month.

“I am sorry to say that because of the relatively high confirmed COVID-19 case counts on campus (approximately 50 per week since the start of the semester) we will need to continue our indoor mask mandate until further notice,” Daniel Tatum wrote.

The levels of infection are taxing “to the limit” the campus health care system and residential services, she wrote, and called well-fitting KN95 masks and up-to-date vaccinations the most effective tools to limit the spread of illness.

“Though we are not there yet, we will eventually shift from a pandemic to an endemic phase,” Daniel Tatum wrote. “As we do, we will also need to evolve our institutional responsibility for COVID-19 protections and expand our individual responsibility — eventually making our own decisions about whether to remain masked in public spaces or not, both on campus and off.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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