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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Column: GW needs to stop requiring masks in classrooms as COVID cases remain low

Most D.C. universities started their academic year without any mask mandates to ease back into a traditional college experience, but GW was one of the few that had a different approach. Though officials made wearing a mask optional in most indoor spaces on campus last semester, a mask mandate is still in place in instructional settings. With a post-winter break surge in COVID cases failing to materialize, GW needs to revisit its COVID-policy strategy and make masking optional in all classrooms on campus.

Despite entering the third year of the pandemic with dwindling nationwide support for measures like universal masking and social distancing, GW hasn’t updated its mask policy since September. Back then, D.C. averaged roughly 79 cases a week per 100,000 people. Positive COVID cases are low at GW and across the District, and a mandatory masking policy within classrooms is proving to be an outdated safety measure.

The University’s masking policy makes it an outlier among other schools in the city. Howard, Georgetown, Catholic and American universities have all lifted their classroom mask requirements. Georgetown removed its mask mandate in March after it reported its lowest COVID positivity rate of the semester at roughly one percent, down from 6.5 percent in January. And American stopped requiring masks in classroom settings in September 2021 after it reported a vaccination rate of approximately 98 percent.

GW’s current COVID case rate is inflated because of the smaller pool of students and faculty being tested. Because GW stopped requiring biweekly COVID testing last July, fewer people are testing, and those who do test are likely those already symptomatic of COVID. Of 516 tests that GW administered between Jan. 13 and Jan. 20, 62, or roughly 12 percent of tests, were positive. GW reported that 504, or four percent of tests, were positive out of 12,561 total tests in the same period last year. The former biweekly testing policy gave a more accurate picture of COVID positivity at GW. But with the threat of transmission waning, making masking in the classroom optional would be more conducive to the current pandemic environment.

After months of masking requirements across campus from September to January, there has been no significant jump in COVID cases, and the positivity rate continues to be lower than the data suggests. Despite not requiring masking in residence halls like the 820-person Thurston Hall or at events like basketball games and school performances, cramped, crowded spaces are more likely to be COVID hotspots than a 20-person Spanish class. But GW fails to consider this inconsistent logic.

Like American, Howard and Georgetown, GW requires its students to be fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID – Catholic University has no vaccination requirement. Approximately just one percent of the student body is exempt from GW’s requirement for religious or medical reasons, suggesting that the vast majority of students and faculty will have a built-in level of protection against COVID. Amid relatively few COVID cases and the ability to test its community should those cases rise, GW’s high vaccination levels should signal a future without masking in classrooms.

Students have been experiencing mask fatigue for months, and many of my peers haven’t worn masks in classroom settings since the beginning of the fall semester. Professors have also grown increasingly lenient with masking enforcement. Most of my instructors, regardless of the classroom size, have disregarded the mandate or outright stated that masking isn’t required in their classroom. Students and faculty already treat masking like it is optional, but the current policy ignores this truth. The University needs to recognize the inconsistent, wavering implementation of the masking requirement across GW’s campus.

The effectiveness of masking has not changed – it’s the need for masking that has. Compassion and understanding during this transitional pandemic period are still vital, and GW students and faculty are still well within their right to continue to mask themselves and politely ask anyone in close proximity to consider wearing a mask as well. COVID still poses a significant risk to immunocompromised students, and while GW should relax its masking policy within classrooms, it would be well advised to continue encouraging their use in the same vein the University promotes staying home when sick, getting flu shots and washing hands.

If positive cases were to climb or vaccines were no longer mandatory, then GW would be justified in mandating masks. Masks mandates should not disappear on campus forever. They should instead serve as intermittent tools if case rates drastically increase. COVID will not disappear in the near future, but its immediate threat has evidently dropped. In the midst of a changing pandemic culture and the embrace of a new normal, GW needs to update its masking policy to match strides with other universities in D.C. and across the country.

Paige Baratta, a freshman studying political science, is an opinions writer.

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