A wave of colleges drop mask mandates following new CDC guidance

Dive Brief: 

  • Many colleges are lifting their campus mask mandates after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidance last week saying most people in the U.S. can stop wearing face coverings indoors because they live in areas with low to medium risk of COVID-19. 
  • The changes are debuting at colleges large and small. Just this week, major private institutions — such as Northeastern, Elon and Boston universities — announced plans to loosen their mask policies. Several public flagships, including the University at Buffalo, in New York, and the University of Montana also recently announced similar changes. 
  • The lifted mandates come as many cities and counties end their own face-covering requirements in the wake of the CDC guidance. However, some of the colleges dropping their mandates are keeping masking requirements in place for certain areas, such as campus health centers. 

Dive Insight: 

The CDC’s new recommendations shift how the agency is determining whether coronavirus countermeasures are necessary. It directs counties to consider the number of new coronavirus-related hospital admissions and their strain on local health systems rather than solely relying on community case counts. 

The guidance also makes clear that surges in the virus could once again require mitigation measures such as mask wearing, said Leana Wen, a health policy and management professor at George Washington University. “This is not like an on and off switch of restriction, but rather a dial,” Wen said. 

Whether a college drops masking requirements could depend on its goal, Wen said. If the goal remains infection control, then mitigation premeasures such as masking and testing will be important. But if the institution is no longer using infection rates as a metric and is instead looking at severe illness, it would make sense for officials to follow the CDC’s new guidance. 

Based on new metrics, the CDC classifies counties as having low, medium or high COVID-19 community levels — each of which comes with its own recommendations. In its mask policy update, Northeastern, which is located in Boston, noted every county in Massachusetts is listed as low or medium, neither of which requires masks in the agency’s guidance. The CDC still recommends masks indoors for counties with high COVID-19 community levels. 

Thomas Vicino, an associate dean of graduate studies at Northeastern, said in a statement that the policy was shaped by the latest data on coronavirus transmission and public health guidance. 

“One of the lessons of the pandemic is that our new normal is shaped by a constant assessment of changing conditions and adapting to new protocols,” Vicino said. 

College officials should stress to students that their decisions are responses to the latest scientifically available information, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. That includes declining case counts nationwide and less strain on the nation’s healthcare system. 

“However, if the situation changes, students should be prepared,” Barkin said. “They may have to reinstitute those requirements if necessary.” 

ACHA updated it coronavirus guidance for colleges Wednesday to say higher education institutions may elect to repeal their masking requirements in light of the CDC’s guidance. They should promote the use of N95, KN95 or ASTM-rated surgical masks if they have to reimplement mandates

While some college students and employees have celebrated loosened masking policies, others are wary of the changes, citing concerns that dropped mandates will leave high-risk people unprotected. 

Some colleges acknowledged those concerns in their announcements. Boston University’s chief health officer, Judy Platt, said in a statement that the institution recognized the transition could be confusing. 

The university, which is still requiring face coverings in classes and its health center, has had a mask mandate in place for almost two years. 

“The widespread availability of high-quality masks did play an important role in BU feeling confident that we could make masks optional in certain settings, while still knowing that more vulnerable members of our community would have ways to protect themselves,” Platt said.

Many colleges are also still requiring masks on public transit, where a federal masking mandate remains in place through at least March 18. 

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