Opinion | Renewed mask mandate breaks campus morale

Students+stand+in+a+circle+masked+during+Urbanite+on+May+1.++The+University+of+Illinois+is+now+requiring+students+to+wear+masks+in+public+spaces+to+stop+the+spread+of+Covid-19.

Cameron Krasucki

Students stand in a circle masked during Urbanite on May 1. The University of Illinois is now requiring students to wear masks in public spaces to stop the spread of Covid-19.

By Micky Horstman, Columnist

The University of Illinois’ updated mask mandate is a giant step in the wrong direction for Illini hoping to regain a sense of normalcy for the upcoming fall semester.

Last week, the University reinstated its mask mandate effective immediately.

These changes have been implemented following updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which suggest that “fully vaccinated individuals resume wearing masks indoors and in public spaces if you are in an area of substantial or high transmission.” The University has designated campus as such, despite semesters of COVID-19 tracker data which suggests otherwise.

Over the course of the pandemic, the University has consistently ranked well below the national average for the number of COVID-19 cases. Champaign County has ranked among the safest in the nation during this public health crisis. They were the model of the University system, receiving praise from health officials, FDA approval on their novel spit tests, and even an inaugural Research Response to Community Crisis Award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities for its COVID-19 testing program.

The University was proof that large-scale institutions could function without compromising the health of the student body. But, by prioritizing the physical wellbeing of the students for so long, the students have suffered immense mental, social and academic harm.

A significant percentage of fall 2021 classes remain remote, and with the addition of the mask mandate, surely more changes are on the horizon.

While students were thrilled to be returning to campus last fall, after COVID-19 effectively canceled the previous spring term, since then, student support for the University’s regulations has drifted away, especially as Universities outside the state operated a relatively normal spring semester with a minimal uptick in COVID-19 cases.

For us, the spring 2021 term was riddled with unforeseen consequences.

Students suffered staggering effects on their mental health, as a third semester of their expensive, higher education was run remotely. The University removed spring break, in hopes to mitigate the spread, but students weren’t prepared for the mental health aftershocks that came with an uninterrupted 16-week term.

The University pushed back the start of the spring term by a week, but required individuals to move back to campus a week prior to the push-back date to get two, spaced-out negative tests — effectively washing any extra time off. They provided three randomly dispersed “mental health days” to accommodate for the five days off students would have received if a spring break was provided. 

These were essentially useless given their placement in the term, and most students spent their “days off” swamped with homework or prepping for exams.

The University has received criticism for its failure to prioritize its student’s mental health in the past, the historical inability to provide students with sufficient counseling needs and access to other resources was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite these challenges, the University was able to maintain one of the most effective COVID-19 testing programs in the world, rollout an immense number of vaccines to students, faculty and staff, all while keeping cases down. This should have been enough.

The biggest problem with this new mask mandate is that it feels performative. It isn’t doing anything significant to help mitigate the spread of the delta variant.

The new mask mandate doesn’t require any additional forms of social distancing for vaccinated individuals, which the CDC has cited as the most effective way to mitigate the contagion, they also report there is an extremely small percentage of new cases, including Delta-variant cases, that are from individuals who have received the COVID-19 vaccine. The University of Illinois is one of over 400 colleges and universities that have required the vaccine to return to campus.

If the mandate doesn’t enforce any new social distancing guidelines, the vaccinated aren’t getting sick, and the University is requiring students to be vaccinated, then what is the point of re-masking up?

The intent is to protect our most vulnerable populations, those who aren’t able to receive the vaccine. The problem is, that isn’t the population remaining unvaccinated, and that’s not the population that is keeping us from emerging from this 2-year crisis. This mask mandate isn’t protecting the vulnerable, it’s protecting the stubborn.

We need bipartisan initiatives to promote vaccinations.

NBC details a poll from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in May which found that of those who were unvaccinated, 49 percent identified as Republican and 29 percent as Democrat. Of those vaccinated, 31 percent identified as Republican while 59 percent identified as Democrat. There is room for major improvement on both sides of the aisle.

In Illinois, 91% of our most vulnerable 65+ demographic has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health in all three measurement populations 12+, 18+, and 65+, over 55% of each group has received their 2nd dose.

Long-term skeptics of the constantly changing CDC guidelines continuously bring up metrics. For students, the question that needs to be answered: What does the vaccine rate need to be to remove all University guidelines? When is the masking over? Seems like a simple, yet impossible answer.

Only 50% of eligible Illinoisans are vaccinated, only 49% of Champaign County. Neither the State, the University, CDC, IDPH or CUPHD have a statistic or goal to reach to declare our community safe. In truth, because they just don’t know.

It’s scary, but in the meantime, there is something you can do. Get vaccinated.

Encourage your friends and family to do the same. Nothing is going to change unless the rate of vaccinated individuals increases. This fall appears as if we’ll continue to have restrictions in performing arts, in sports and the classrooms. Illini students deserve a safe, but regular college experience, until then “mask up Illini.”

 

Micky is a junior in LAS.

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