While the UC Santa Cruz indoor mask mandate has been lifted, the threat of COVID-19 has not.
University administration announced on March 15th that the campus indoor mask mandate would be lifted, signifying a shift in the outlook for campus health.
“We’re entering a new phase, and we’re really encouraging everyone in our community to show some understanding and care for one another,” said UCSC’s Executive Director of University Relations Scott Hernandez-Jason. “The removal of the mask mandate marks a major step forward.”
With facial coverings starting to come off, there is growing excitement for what this means for social interaction and campus life. But while the university perceives the change as a step in the right direction in returning to a pre-COVID-19 campus, the shift received mixed reactions from the UCSC community.
When asked whether or not lifting the campus mask mandate was the right decision, second-year Melissa Muslic replied, “I just don’t really know.” For the psychology and biomolecular engineering double major, the lift appears tentative.
“For most people, [COVID-19] is still a real thing,” Muslic said. “Especially with masks still required on buses, and strongly encouraged elsewhere, the possibility that another variant emerges and threatens campus health isn’t out of the question.”
According to UCSC’s Slug Strong dashboard, the seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 on campus is at 3.07 percent as of April 19 — in comparison to the pandemic-high of 6.81 percent in January.
However, that current number is rising steeply. The 3.07 percent seven-day positivity rate is about ten times what it was in March, and about four times what it was a week earlier.
Molecular, cell, and developmental biology department chair Professor Grant Hartzog felt that masks inhibited how well he could read the facial expressions of his students.
“It came at a psychosocial cost,” Hartzog said. Although he felt the mask mandate worked effectively, the coverings hurt his ability to hear questions and vocalize his lessons.
Luca Russo, a second-year ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) student, echoed this feeling. While strongly in support of the precautions the university has taken so far, including the vaccination and mask requirements, Russo added that he was glad to see a shift.
Hernandez-Jason pointed out that, despite clear guidance from state and federal health departments, administration had the final say on mask policy.
“The decision was made by the Chancellor and announced by the Chancellor,” Hernandez-Jason said.
When asked her thoughts on administration’s final say, Muslic expressed disappointment with the university, and felt that this decision embodied overall unreceptiveness to students.
“They don’t care what we think,” she said. “It’s like no one is listening to us.”
Hartzog said that, for faculty, communication from administration was unclear and inconsistent.
In addressing health worries — especially for immunocompromised students — Hartzog recommended to voice concerns to your lecturers or professors along with continuing to mask.
Dr. Elizabeth Miller, Medical Director at the Cowell Student Health Center, advised that everyone should stay consistently up-to-date on vaccine and booster guidelines in order to effectively protect each other.
Despite the lifting of the mandate, many students across campus are continuing to keep their masks on — a trend noticed by EEB professor Marm Kilpatrick.
“The impact of lifting the mask mandate depends on what fraction of people continue to mask,” Kilpatrick said. “I teach two courses, and in those classes yesterday, 95 percent of students were still masking. If this drops, then the risk of transmission will increase.”
With facial-covering requirements now gone in almost all campus settings, students’ personal choices will take the lead on whether or not to stay masked up — as cases begin to rise once again.
This article was published as a part of a City on a Hill Press backlog and was originally written during the week of April 10.