It has been nearly three years since the COVID-19 virus was first declared a pandemic, and the world still grapples with its impact. Though medical research has provided humanity with tools to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the virus and its effects continue to linger in our communities.
While we are now much better equipped to combat the pandemic, we are also far from a reality where COVID-19 is not a global threat. This paradoxical existence in a post-COVID world has made the pandemic feel like a permanent state of being enshrouded in policies that reinforce this condition as “the new normal.”
As students return to campus for the new school year, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County is breaking from this new normal. On October 3, 2022, UMBC administration removed the campus-wide mask mandate which required all students and faculty to wear masks in classrooms and on-campus facilities. This shift follows a trend set by various other jurisdictions in the U.S. that are beginning to loosen COVID-19 protocols in response to consistently low case averages and broader vaccine access.
Over summer break, the University of Maryland, College Park removed its mask mandate as well, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore did the same this past spring.
This recent decision by the administration begs the question: is UMBC ready to remove certain COVID-19 safety measures?
The Director of UMBC’s Office of Health Promotion, Samantha Smith, provided clarification on the university’s public health positions.
“COVID-19 is still circulating in our local, national, and global communities,” but, “[in] Baltimore County, our community risk level is low according to CDC standard.”
Smith added that Baltimore County’s low-risk level follows a pattern of “national trends in the number of new cases, number of deaths, and hospitalization rates trending downward.”
Vaccinations, however, are still required to live on campus (with religious exemptions) and Smith still recommends that students “wear a well-fitting mask in situations where distancing is not possible.”
If the massive spike in cases this past January has taught the UMBC community anything, it is that COVID-19 is a very incalculable virus that requires everyone to stay vigilant.
One crucial voice that has been largely excluded from discussions surrounding public health on campus is the public itself. The perspectives of those in the UMBC community regarding their experiences with COVID-19 protocols must be considered to ensure a comfortable masking transition within campus life.
The general attitude of UMBC students towards the university’s ongoing response to the pandemic appears to be fairly optimistic.
“I definitely think they are prepared because during the height of [the pandemic], it seems like we were doing a lot better than most other schools,” said Senior Information Systems major Stan Winn.
From Winn’s point of view, “cases have decreased but [UMBC has]… kept a solid grasp on [COVID-19] even when things started to look better.”
Still, there are students who are unsatisfied with the university’s public health policies.
“I think that lifting of the mask mandate is a bit irresponsible,” said junior Political Science major Lauren Feehan.
“I think it’s especially important to wear [masks] in classrooms when you’re around other people, especially people you don’t know who might have specific health risks.”
Feehan added that “because we are a commuter school, you never know; you can be carrying it unknowingly to campus.”
A plethora of students share Feehan’s perspective, especially students that are particularly vulnerable to COVID. In an open letter to UMBC’s COVID Committee, the UMBC Disability Advocate Student Union and faculty from The Dresher Center expressed their contentions with the removal of the campus-wide mask mandate.
The letter stressed the heightened danger that COVID poses to the “immunocompromised, chronically ill, and/or disabled,” and notes that “most counties in Maryland currently have high or substantial community transmission.”
The authors of the letter have found the change in masking policy “disappointing and frightening,” as it would make various parts of campus “unsafe and inaccessible” for vulnerable students.
They advocate for the university to expand hybrid and online courses and events as they increase academic accessibility for at-risk students. The letter reminds students and faculty “risk during a pandemic is not individual,” which is especially pertinent considering UMBC’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
In fact, sentiments of inclusion and consideration for vulnerable populations are echoed by much of the student body.
For example, second year English major Andrew Pierce asserts that it is “important to still have [a mask] on your person,” in case someone requests that you be masked when interacting with them.
Pierce supports “the convention of choice,” as it pertain to the university’s public health policies, which they say includes both making classes more accessible for at-risk students as well as affirming the social and educational utility of in-person classes.
It is possible then that the university’s decision to lift the mask mandate may be motivated more by student comfort and well-being.
Senior Political Science student Jennifer Soros believes that the university’s decision has been motivated at least in part by “a push to… get society to normalize after the pandemic,” after surrounding communities have begun to ease COVID safety protocols.
Indeed, a walk around campus will reveal that a significant proportion of the student body is ambivalent about wearing masks outside of a classroom setting.
Winn usually wears his mask “whenever it’s required” of him, but expresses that he feels more comfortable forgoing certain COVID-19 protocols as UMBC has improved its capacity to combat the pandemic.
“If other people are being safe about [masking], then I think it’s perfectly okay,” Winn added.
For many students, the pandemic has been a temporal state of longing to exit the new normal in exchange for the old. So, it is up to the university’s administration to reconcile with their influence, and decide which conception of normality the student body will live in.
Nate Sharma is a junior Political Science major working as a contributing reporter in News. Contact Nate at firstname.lastname@example.org.