Editorial: Removal of the mask mandate in residential buildings is both a blessing and a curse

Editorial Board

For many Case Western Reserve University students, this semester has made it painfully obvious how COVID-19 has affected our way of life. Masking in dorms and classrooms, having limits on event sizes and testing regularly are necessary precautions but annoying hindrances to our college experience. In response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant earlier this year, classes moved to remote instruction but returned to in-person instruction after two weeks, as the wave had seemingly slowed down. Now, the continued decline in coronavirus cases at CWRU and in Cuyahoga County has prompted changes to such policies, allowing us to finally experience some semblance of normalcy.

On Monday, Feb. 14, General Counsel Peter Poulos, Vice President for Human Resources Carolyn Gregory and Vice President for Student Affairs Lou Stark released an email detailing new COVID-19 protocols. These changes included the end of the mask mandate in residence halls for fully vaccinated students and the curtailing of restrictions surrounding organizing events. In their email, they stated that “[w]hen remote classes began Jan. 10, our campus had more than 280 positive cases … Today, it’s 27.” The end of the mask mandate in dorms seems to make sense, especially considering the inevitable closeness of dorm living. Since students are often in shared enclosed spaces—such as bathrooms, kitchens and common areas—it’s unlikely that unmasking in these situations would pose any additional health concerns. However, while the risk to residents is minimal, the campus-wide implications for this policy change are unclear.

It will be nearly impossible for resident assistants to differentiate between those who live in the dorms and those who don’t, so enforcing any limitations on unmasking would be impractical. Given the high amounts of traffic in dorms, it will become difficult to limit exposure and to contact trace if large-scale outbreaks arise. Additionally, student attitudes towards COVID-19 protocols could change, as students may feel the university is becoming more lenient with masking. This may cause an increase in coronavirus cases on campus as students may be inclined to stop wearing masks even beyond residential buildings. Considering CWRU’s current lackluster attempt at enforcing masking requirements in classrooms and common spaces like Kelvin Smith Library and Tinkham Veale University Center, we would be hard-pressed to think their efforts will become any more effective following this change.

From a logical standpoint, this COVID-19 protocol change is a step in the right direction if we wish to return to anything resembling “normal.” It serves as a symbol of progress as the health of the CWRU community continues to improve. However, despite its benefits, the policy could be risky as students may take the new leniency it offers to the extreme. With CWRU’s historic lack of initiative and clarity when it comes to enforcing their COVID-19 policies, the students are left to suffer the potential consequences. 

For now, we can view this new policy as a test of CWRU officials’ ability to safely lift COVID-19 protocols and the students’ ability to responsibly abide by these changes. We hope that the university will take the proper measures to continue to facilitate this rapid decline in cases and will continue to update their COVID-19 protocols and guidelines. At the same time, we hope students will continue to practice caution when it comes to masking, even in light of such changes. If all goes well, we hope to see more protocols relaxed. If cases surge, we will likely see a reversal in policy changes and the implementation of stricter testing requirements and mask mandates. Only time can dictate the future of CWRU’s fight against COVID-19 and what steps need to be taken moving forward. We hope our administration will be proactive as we continue to deal with this crisis, and we urge our fellow students to remain vigilant.