When the University announced that it would be mandating masks for all individuals regardless of vaccination status, Faculty Congress Chairperson Tom Way was disappointed by the news.

“I was very hopeful at the beginning of the semester,” Way said. “There's a lot of vaccination on campus and people who were not vaccinated were doing their part to keep everyone else safe and themselves safe as well. So then to see things take a turn and us have to mandate masks was certainly disappointing. Speaking for myself, I'm much more comfortable now that masking indoors is required, given that the cases have been on the rise.”

The Faculty Congress had been advocating for a change in the University’s masking policy prior to the Sept. 3 mandate. 

An email sent to faculty by Way on Aug. 31 detailed that the executive committee of the Faculty Congress had “unsuccessfully requested” the policy committee, which makes suggestions to the University on its COVID-19 response, to adjust its preferred policy to an “opt-out” policy, rather than what was at the time an “opt-in” policy. 

“Opt-out” would set a universal mask mandate as the base policy for campus, with the ability for classes to opt-out of the policy through a unanimous anonymous vote. Way clarified that the policy would protect students and faculty that felt uncomfortable requesting that masks be worn in classrooms.

“Very early on, our science advisory group of faculty said that [the opt-in policy] really puts pressure on faculty members and students who might feel a little bit at risk, faculty members with small children at home or elderly parents or even faculty members themselves, who might have reasons to be concerned about exposure, that puts them in the position of having to be kind of the ‘bad guy,’” Way said. 

The email detailing the mandate stated that the University “will continue to monitor our positive cases and assess our next steps after Family Weekend.” As Family Weekend has come and gone, it is yet to be seen whether or not the University reverts back to its original policy, continues with its current policy or moves to an “opt-out” policy. 

The University COVID-19 dashboard shows a total of 182 cumulative cases among community members since Aug. 17, with an overall positivity rate of 3%, significantly lower than the state of Pennsylvania’s 8.8% rate, according to covidactnow.org. However, a lower positivity rate is to be expected within a community with a 95% vaccination rate. 

The question of where cases are coming from is not one that’s answered by the COVID-19 dashboard, as there’s no specification of how many of the total cases are breakthrough cases and how many are among unvaccinated individuals. 

The Faculty Congress has also requested that the COVID-19 dashboard be more specific about the nature of cases so that members of the community would be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they feel that a mask is necessary. 

“It would be informative to know of the cases, what percentage are breakthrough versus what percentage are [among] people who were unvaccinated, that could help inform other decisions as well.” Way said. “That extra bit of breakdown would help us try to figure out and navigate the coming months as safely as possible.” 

And while the University tries to move forward with in-person classes, the faculty remains open to any changes that keep the community safe.

“As long as we are still actively engaged in caring for each other, I think anything that might make our learning better should be considered.” Way said.