Faculty must fight on all fronts for masks in their classrooms

Matthew LeHew, assistant professor of communication at Dalton State College in Georgia, starts every class with an ultrasound image of his unborn child, imploring his students to wear masks in order to protect his family from COVID-19. Three states away, Steve Vladeck, the Charles Allan Wright chair in Federal Courts at the University of Texas School of Law, welcomed his students with a multi-paragraph email about the social contract inherent in entering into a heterogeneous community defined by disagreement. 

He urges students to act not only on their personal beliefs but on behalf of the broader community. On the subject of masks, he writes, “keep in mind that we’re all part of a community, and that even the most personal choices can still impact those around us in ways that we may never adequately appreciate.” 

Because the Board of Regents overseeing Georgia’s University system has declined to mandate that students be vaccinated or wear masks, and the UT system is governed by Texas’ ban on mask mandates, LeHew, Vladeck, and countless other faculty can only influence their students’ behaviors through these persuasive overtures. Matthew Boedy, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Georgia, describes the uncertainty of teaching unmasked and potentially unvaccinated students as “an emotional hellscape”.    

Contrast this to the experiences of faculty on campuses where masks are required. Many colleges and universities, including Penn State University, California State University and The University of Nevada, require students and faculty to wear masks in all classrooms, offices, labs and other buildings unless they have a specific medical accommodation. These universities consider non-compliance with the mask mandate a violation of the code of conduct. They offer faculty language for their syllabi that explains this expectation, as well as clear direction about how to address students who come to class unmasked. These institutional supports for faculty are necessary to protect the physical and mental health of the university community as a whole, yet they remain unavailable to many. Aligning university policy with public health practice guidelines should be a strategic priority of university faculties. 

In many cases, colleges’ and universities’ masking policies are directed by regulations of public institutions’ COVID-19 response. Five states, including Texas, Arizona, Utah, Iowa and South Carolina currently ban public school institutions from requiring masks. With their hands tied by state governments who provide the bulk of their funding, public universities can’t enact mask or vaccination mandates. In other cases, like Georgia, universities’ private governing bodies are willfully ignoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations for universal masking.  

College professors struggle to find power in this situation. Many K-12 teachers embedded in parallel struggles across the country can leverage their unions to support their demands for (and against) mask and vaccine mandates. No such collective bargaining structures protect college faculty — especially those without tenure. Moreover, the academic job market is extremely competitive; for every professor who resigns in protest over the university’s refusal to mandate classroom, there are a hundred others waiting to take their place. Yet, as the political battle over universal masking unfolds, some candidates are taking universities’ approaches into account as they launch their job searches, suggesting that universities may stand to lose talent as well as the patina of scientific objectivity.      

While university faculty are left to wage classroom-level campaigns to institute universal masking, there is growing resistance against bans on mask mandates from all levels of the K-12 education system. Numerous districts have elected to defy state bans on mask mandates by requiring universal masking of students and teachers; parents in Utah sued the state over the ban on mask mandates; a Florida Judge struck down the state’s ban on mandatory masking in schools. At the federal level, President Biden opened civil rights investigations and promised to bring legal action against states banning mask mandates. 

Resistance at the university level has been less common, but not unheard of. Arizona State University identified a hole in the state’s ban on mask mandates and began requiring universal masking of students in campus buildings. Less clear is how to successfully advocate for the adoption of universal masking policies in universities and colleges where local and institutional discretion reigns. In some cases, faculty senates have successfully pushed their university administration or even state government to require COVID-19 precautions on their campuses. A coordinated effort to examine strategies that have been effective in other educational settings could amplify and accelerate these efforts.  

To be clear — it should not be the responsibility of faculty to secure the safety and public health of their classrooms; that burden should fall on the institutions of higher education that profit from their teaching and research. But in the present situation —where professors are fighting for their own protection, as well as the protection of their families, local communities, and their students — a collective and policy-focused effort may be most effective. 

Colleges and universities are the nation’s engine of research and science and are — at least nominally — aligned with the same facts, evidence, and data that drive the CDC’s recommendation for universal masking indoors. Yet, colleges and universities are not protected from the politicization of public health. To protect students, faculty and staff from the rampant spread of the delta variant, colleges and universities must strengthen their commitment to science and institute policies that reduce the risk of the virus’ spread. Faculty, instead of — or in addition to — imploring their students to wear masks, should harness their collective political power and demand the institutional support of their purportedly empirically objective employers. 

 Dr. Meg Caven is a senior research associate at the Education Development Center (EDC).

Tags Colleges and universities colleges reopening COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccine Delta variant in-person learing Joe Biden mask mandates mask mandates in schools mask wearing

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