Students must understand lifted mask mandate’s complexities

By Emma Reilly
Opinion Editor

If students’ reactions on social media and in-class comments are anything to go by, Washington College’s shift to a mask-optional policy on March 3 came as quite a shock. Although Maryland reassessed its COVID-19 restrictions in February — mask mandates in schools and state facilities were lifted on Feb. 22, according to The Washington Post — state-level changes were not immediately mimicked on campus.

While state policies were shifting, WC continued to operate as it had since the semester began.

However, on March 1, the campus community was alerted that change might be underway. In an email, WC’s Contingency Planning Group announced that the College’s COVID-19 policies were undergoing reconsideration. Reexamination of WC’s policies was conducted in response to “updated guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…around the use of face masks,” according to the email.

Soon after, the news that the campus’ mask requirement was lifted arrived rather surprisingly on a Thursday afternoon.

According to the CPG’s email announcing the change, the decision to lift the campus’ mask requirement was made with “our low risk levels, our high vaccination rate, and…new information from the CDC.”

Of course, no matter how encouraging WC’s vaccination rate seems, there are a thousand questions this change raises — questions that can’t necessarily be answered by the College.

There are likely many students who breathed a sigh of relief upon reading the CPG’s email three weeks ago. As changing attitudes toward COVID-19 have indicated, and as the nation’s seeming return to normalcy demonstrates, some people are just ready to go back to the way things were before.

COVID-19 caused — and is causing — trauma, death, anxiety, and uncertainty. For some, moving on from masks means moving on from those feelings. I’ve certainly had my fair share of moments where all I’ve wanted is to forget the pandemic ever existed.

Those feelings are understandable, but can things ever really go back to normal? I don’t think so. People who lost friends and family to COVID-19 might not think so either.

It is unrealistic to urge on a normalcy that can’t be fully restored.

We shouldn’t see the mask mandate being lifted as an erasure of everything that we’ve been through in the past few years. Rather, we should focus on adapting to this new phase of life with compassion.

Moving on isn’t realistic for everyone, and that includes plenty of people who are a part of our campus community. According to the American Medical Association, 700 million Americans are immunocompromised. That’s a significant number, so it is necessary to note that immunocompromised students, or students with immunocompromised loved ones, can’t take a break from worrying about their health or the health of those close to them.

Students with pre-existing as well as pandemic-borne anxieties may need more time to adjust to a semi-maskless environment after wearing one for years.

Old anxieties may even be exacerbated by emerging ones. According to The New York Times, “when requirements to wear masks disappear, peer pressure and ongoing disagreements about whether to cover their faces are causing new anxieties for some.”

There are many reasons why someone may choose to continue to wear a mask, or not to, in light of the CPG’s recent update. With that in mind, self- and communal awareness will be key in the coming weeks.

Do what feels safe and comfortable for you. Be aware of those around you, and do what you can to help them feel safe and comfortable too. Inform yourself.

By striving to understand the challenges — and even risks — that a maskless environment poses to our community, and by continuing to prioritize safety, we can tackle the new day-to-day at WC with grace.

Photo by Kayla Thornton

Featured Photo Caption: Masks are no longer required in WC facilities and classrooms, though some students still choose to wear one.

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