Colleges and universities are scrambling to revise campus public safety protocols in the wake of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings or maintain physical distance from others.
The CDC guidance, which was issued late last week, has added a layer of confusion to the already politicized debate about mask wearing and is prompting some institutions that had mask mandates in place to change course. Some colleges have begun lifting indoor mask mandates, while others are keeping them in place for now, citing considerations such as a need to increase vaccination rates and the inability to determine who is or is not vaccinated.
The CDC says that the risk of contracting the virus among vaccinated people is minimal and the risk of transmitting the virus is also reduced, meaning that in both indoor and outdoor settings, "fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing," except where required by local laws, regulations or rules, including workplace guidance.
Among the colleges that have lifted campus mask mandates in response to the new CDC guidance are Eastern Oklahoma State College, Georgia Institute of Technology and the Universities of Florida, Montana and Tennessee at Knoxville.
"With the availability of vaccines and the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have reached a new milestone in our response to this virus," Donde Plowman, UT Knoxville's chancellor, wrote in a campuswide message Monday.
"According to the CDC, vaccines reduce the risk of people spreading COVID-19 and are effective at preventing COVID-19, especially severe illness," Plowman wrote. "With vaccines now readily available both on and off campus, members of our campus community can make informed decisions about their health and how they protect themselves."
While vaccinated individuals will no longer need to wear a mask while indoors or outdoors on campus, unvaccinated individuals should still wear a mask and practice distancing for their own protection, according to the university's revised policy.
"We will continue to encourage vaccination and to make it as convenient as we can for people to participate," Plowman wrote.
Texas A&M University announced Tuesday that it was lifting its face mask requirement for its campuses immediately -- which means masks will not be required at the remaining commencement ceremonies -- in response to an executive order from Governor Greg Abbott prohibiting governmental entities or government officials from requiring face coverings.
Other public universities in Texas that cited the governor’s executive order in lifting their mask mandates included Tarleton State University, Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin.
UT Austin president Jay Hartzell wrote in a campuswide email Wednesday that effective immediately, "masks are optional inside university buildings and outdoors … For individuals who are not fully vaccinated or have weakened immune systems, masking and social distancing are optional but recommended."
Texas State said in a statement that wearing a face mask "is still strongly encouraged, especially for those who are not vaccinated. Numerous scientific studies have proven that wearing a face mask can significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19. For over a year, our university community has embraced mask-wearing as one of the ways we show one another respect and protect each other."
The Texas Faculty Association issued a statement urging Abbott to reconsider his order ending mask mandates in government facilities.
“We urge him to allow colleges and universities to continue requiring masks, at least until a larger number of Texans are vaccinated against the coronavirus,” said the association’s president, Pat Heintzelman. “Many Texans are not vaccinated, and university faculty and employees have no way of knowing who is and who isn’t vaccinated on their campuses and in their classroom.”
A spokesperson for Abbott did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday.
Leana Wen, a visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, argues that the lifting of indoor mask mandates on college campuses is premature.
“If you had talked to me a week ago, before the CDC guidelines were issued, or if you had talked to virtually any public health expert a week ago and asked us, ‘Is it time to lift mask mandates on college campuses?’ we would have said absolutely not,” she said. “Nothing has changed since then other than the CDC’s ill-advised, naïve and problematic guidance.”
“I understand what they were trying to get at, which is to say vaccinated people do not need to be wearing masks,” Wen said. “That’s individual guidance. The CDC is the public health institution for the country. They do not get to issue individual guidance without a clarification of what that means when it comes to policy. What they should have said is unless there is a way to determine vaccinated status in places where vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix, mask mandates should still remain in place.
“Without that kind of statement or clarification, this has resulted in businesses, schools, colleges lifting their mask mandates altogether, and it is too soon to do this,” Wen continued. “We still have under 38 percent of the population in the country fully vaccinated. Our case rates are dropping, which is fantastic, but there are parts of the country still with high rates of coronavirus spread.”
While at least 375 colleges have announced plans to require vaccinations for all students on campus this fall, according to a list maintained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the majority of colleges are not currently planning on requiring vaccinations. Colleges in some states, including Florida, are prohibited by state law from requiring vaccination against COVID-19.
Quincy University, in Illinois, which is strongly encouraging but not requiring vaccination against COVID-19 for students this fall, announced last week that masks and physical distancing are no longer required on campus for those who are fully vaccinated, but said that those who "have not been vaccinated are expected to continue to wear masks in public settings and to practice physical distancing to the fullest extent possible."
Brian McGee, Quincy's president, said administrators will rely largely on the honor system in enforcing the different requirements for vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals.
"The federal government has not created a system allowing for reliable verification of COVID-19 vaccination status," McGee said via email. "Because a verification system is not available, we expect the members of the Quincy University community and those visiting the campus to act honorably and to follow our policies, consistent with each individual's vaccination status. Members of our community who acknowledge they are unvaccinated and who nevertheless fail to follow our COVID-19 policies for unvaccinated individuals may be subject to discipline, consistent with all applicable institutional policies for students, faculty and staff."
M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University, in Detroit, wrote in a campuswide message that the university would not relax its mask requirement due to the practical challenge of determining who is and isn’t vaccinated.
“I believe the CDC made the right decision to relax their guidelines, and I support the new recommendations,” Wilson wrote. “However, the practical limitation in the CDC guidelines is that we do not have the ability to differentiate those who have been vaccinated from those who have not. This information is important, particularly if everyone is unmasked indoors. We need to operate in a manner that protects the safety of every member of our campus community. Therefore, masks will still be required indoors on Wayne State’s campus.”
Some colleges are continuing to study the matter. At Duke University, which plans to require COVID-19 vaccination for students coming to the North Carolina campus this fall, administrators said they would maintain the requirement that individuals mask while indoors while it assesses the CDC and state-level guidelines and consults with campus experts.
“While we may ease requirements in the coming month, masking and social distance continue to be the most effective way to limit the spread among unvaccinated individuals,” Kyle Cavanaugh, Duke’s vice president for administration, wrote in a campuswide message Tuesday.
“We are making good progress in vaccination with more than 65 percent of faculty and staff and 55 percent of students now fully vaccinated,” Cavanaugh wrote. “Continued progress in vaccination will provide us greater confidence in easing restrictions for social distancing and masking inside certain facilities on campus in the next several weeks.”
Syracuse University in New York said that it planned to begin easing masking and distancing requirements in line with CDC recommendations starting May 24 -- after the influx of visitors it expects this weekend for commencement.
"We believe that this approach best supports a safe weekend of Commencement activities, where the focus is squarely on celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates," J. Michael Haynie, vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, wrote in a campuswide message Monday.
Robert Schooley, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who helps lead the university’s coronavirus response, said the university is still studying the matter. California is keeping its statewide indoor mask mandate in place until June 15, and the University of California has announced it will require COVID vaccination this fall contingent on one of the vaccines receiving full Food and Drug Administration approval. The three vaccines currently in widespread use are approved through the FDA’s emergency use authorization process.
“Our faculty assumed that we’d be teaching masked in the fall, and that’s currently still our official position; we haven’t had an opportunity to discuss in detail how to change that or whether we should change that,” Schooley said. “From a science and health perspective, I think it would be entirely safe to operate the campus in an unmasked scenario because we’re going to require students faculty and staff to be vaccinated when the campus opens up.”
That said, Schooley said there will be people on campus who will be unprotected even after being vaccinated because they are immunocompromised. And he said it could be important to keep a mask mandate in place through the start of the fall to help professors and students feel safe about returning to on-campus learning.
“I think it’s really important to separate science and policy decisions and be quite articulate about why the policy is set, however we decide to come down with it, whether it’s based on scientific concerns about transmission or about social concerns about people feeling safe to come back on campus,” he said.