Students have raised safety concerns after Georgetown University announced it will implement a mask-optional policy starting March 21.
Mask-wearing will become optional in university owned or operated buildings if COVID-19 positivity rates on campus remain low, according to a March 11 email sent to community members from Provost Robert M. Groves. Individual faculty members are not permitted to require students to wear masks while in classrooms, offices, meetings or events, the email states.
For the week of March 6, the university saw its lowest COVID-19 positivity rate of the spring semester at 1.03%, a decrease from the 6.49% positivity rate in the week of Jan. 9, when students returned to campus from winter break.
All community members should respect one another’s privacy when deciding whether to wear a mask, according to the email.
“Please help all members of our community feel welcome and safe, and consider putting on a mask when interacting with someone who is wearing a mask. Do not pressure someone to put on or take off a mask,” the email reads.
Individuals must continue to wear masks in university health care facilities, including in COVID-19 testing centers, and on university-operated buses. Individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 must wear a mask for 10 days from the date of exposure or infection.
Students like Katelyn Rickert (COL ’24) are glad the university is turning to a mask-optional policy because similar mandates have been lifted elsewhere.
“I was happy to see Georgetown follow DC’s removal of the mask mandate, as well as the steps taken by other universities to remove mask mandates when the risk of COVID is so low,” Rickert wrote to The Hoya. “I would have liked to see the mask mandate removed earlier, since almost all places in the country have removed their mask mandate, including other universities.”
Other students, such as Olivia Henry (COL ’24), have expressed concerns over how the policy will impact immunocompromised individuals.
“It would require students and faculty to essentially be like, ‘Hey, I’m immunocompromised, the responsibility is now on me to make sure that I stay safe,’” Henry said in an interview with The Hoya. “If we’re actually caring for others, as the way Georgetown claims, our neighbors shouldn’t have to tell us that they’re immunocompromised, we should just know ‘Hey, let me keep on my mask.’”
Students whose medical conditions put them at risk under the new policy may seek an accommodation from the Georgetown Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity & Affirmative Action (IDEAA) or the Academic Resource Center, according to a university spokesperson.
Liam Jodrey (COL ’24) said the high vaccination rate on campus makes him feel safe without wearing a mask.
“It felt like an overdue decision considering that almost everyone here has had 3 shots for covid, but I understand that the decision was partly in the hands of the DC government,” Jodrey wrote.
The District lifted its indoor mask requirement March 1 after a decrease in COVID-19 cases in the city. Private businesses can still require mask-wearing, and passengers in District-operated public transportation and private rideshare vehicles must continue to wear a mask.
Most of Georgetown’s campus community is vaccinated against COVID-19 with 98% of students, 98% of faculty and 97% of staff vaccinated.
Health experts say wearing a high-grade surgical mask, such as a KN95, can still provide protection against infection even when others are unmasked.
Sara Fairbank (NHS ’24) who works at Georgetown Medstar Hospital to complete nursing clinicals, said she is concerned about how the new policy will impact patients.
“Luckily I am not immunocompromised nor is any of my loved ones, but I am a nursing student. I will have to take care of many very sick patients. If I give a patient COVID and they die from it, I don’t know how I’ll cope with the guilt.” Fairbank wrote in an email to The Hoya.
A mask requirement may be reinstated if positivity rates on campus rise, according to a university spokesperson.
“As a reminder, the mask-optional policy is dependent on the University’s case load and positivity rate, even in the context of the District having overall low community transmission,” the spokesperson wrote. “Indoor masking and other public health measures may be reimposed as needed, depending on pandemic conditions.”
The lifting of the mandate does not take into account the interests of immunocompromised or disabled students, Fairbank said.
“This change just seems like the university is prioritizing the convenience and comfort of non-disabled and non-immunocompromised people at the expense of disabled and immunocompromised individuals,” Fairbank wrote. “Regardless of the functioning of our immune system, we all deserve to feel that the university is implementing policies that are in everyone’s best interest.”