On Tuesday the 22nd of February, Millsaps’ COVID-19 Response Committee sent out a campus-wide email announcing that Millsaps’ indoor masking requirement was going to end, making any mask policies in indoor classrooms “the discretion of the faculty member responsible for the classroom” beginning the 28th of February.
The lifting of the mask mandate came as a surprise to both students and faculty, the latter of whom scrambled to make mask policies for their classes in the six-day period between the policy’s announcement and its enforcement. In email correspondence with Millsaps’ administration, Ms. Annie Mitchell (Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Millsaps) explained that the College’s reason for dropping the mask mandate mid-semester was that “[f]ortunately, [COVID-19] cases both on campus and in our region are low”, noting that “many of our peers [other Mississippian colleges] have made masks optional because of low numbers and convenient availability of the vaccine and booster”.
The number of COVID-19 cases reported on campus are indeed low—the College publishes this data on their COVID-19 Dashboard, which shows that as of the 22nd of February (the day that the email announcement came out), there had been a cumulative total of 81 positive cases among students and 24 positive cases among faculty/staff this semester, with 0 active cases among students.
It is, however, important to note that Millsaps currently does not regularly test the entire student body. In accordance with NCAA recommendations and SAA requirements, the College regularly tests all non-vaccinated student-athletes and coaches. Aside from positive tests among non-vaccinated student-athletes, the number of positive cases reported in Millsaps’ data consists only of students who self-report a positive test or students who voluntarily go to the Wesson Health Center to get tested. Since mild cases of COVID-19, particularly among those vaccinated, can go unnoticed or untested, it is possible that the true incidence of COVID-19 is higher than reported.
As for COVID-19 rates in the wider community, the CDC also collates data by county. The day after Millsaps sent their email announcing the change in masking policy, the community transmission rate for Hinds County was considered “High” by the CDC. By the Friday of that week, the transmission rate had fallen to “Substantial”, although it remained at “High” for Mississippi State as a whole:
At the time of writing (2/25/22), the CDC’s community guidelines for Hinds County doesn’t mention masking indoors, but their Guidance for Institutions of Higher Learning page does recommend masking in indoor public spaces for areas of high or substantial transmission, such as Hinds County.
Given the somewhat inconsistent recommendations that can be found on the CDC’s webpage, as well as the ostensibly low number of positive cases on campus, it is understandable that the administration has chosen to relax COVID-19 safety protocols. The move also comes amid a general shift in public attitude towards COVID-19 from one of “eradication” to an approach of “living with covid”. Even while indoor masking was enforced, fraternity parties were regularly held on campus this academic year, and public consciousness of social distancing has certainly waned since the beginning of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, there are several key concerns that the College should consider as it lifts its mask mandate. First and foremost, lifting the mask mandate places the onus of public safety on individuals who are concerned with their personal safety (for example, students, faculty, and staff who are unvaccinated for medical reasons, who are immunocompromised or who have vulnerable family members, or who are otherwise reluctant to “just get covid”, perhaps because they cannot afford to miss class/work). Although the College asks for everyone “to be respectful and courteous of individuals who may request that peers and colleagues wear masks when in close proximity”, the lack of a College-wide policy can nevertheless place these individuals in an uncomfortable or unfair position. Consider, for example, the pressure of power dynamics if a student were to ask their professor to wear a mask. Similarly, staff—the cleaning staff or cafeteria staff, for example—may find it difficult to ask students and professors to wear masks.
Additionally, for the same reason that the CDC’s somewhat contradictory guidelines cited above can be confusing for readers to interpret, inconsistencies in mask-enforcement on campus can be an inadvisable public health approach. If a student were to be expected to wear a mask in one class, then be free to unmask for their next class, only to be asked to mask for their third class (and so on, or vice versa), it would be understandable for students to be uncertain of when and where exactly they’re meant to be masked; some may forget to bring their masks out with them, and the act of wearing or not wearing a mask may seem like something to be decided arbitrarily, an image that the College is unlikely to want to encourage. In comparison, a campus-wide masking policy is easier to navigate.
Finally, by leaving in-class masking policies up to the discretion of the relevant faculty member, Millsaps runs a very real risk of creating a culture wherein certain professors are villainized or are seen as uptight for asking students to be masked, when other professors aren’t doing so. For all that the College asks community members “to be respectful and courteous” if they are asked by others to wear a mask, the College seems ill-equipped to respond to student frustration if students find themselves annoyed at professors for having to mask and unmask for different classes.
Millsaps noted in their email that certain masks, specifically N95 masks or double-masking, can offer protection to the wearer even when others are masked, linking an article published on the CDC’s webpage. That same article concludes that “[u]ntil vaccine-induced population immunity is achieved, universal masking is a highly effective means to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when combined with other protective measures, such as physical distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor spaces, and good hand hygiene” (emphasis added).
With regard to a possible vaccine mandate, Millsaps currently “recommends, but does not require, the vaccine”, and Ms. Mitchell said that currently, “it is fair to say that since this has been the college’s position since the vaccine was first made available two years ago, the college’s position will likely not change”. The self-reported vaccination rate among students, faculty, and staff is currently around 80%. For context, the rate of fully-vaccinated adults in Hinds County is currently 67.2%, and 74.9% nationally, according to CDC data. An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology in January this year argues that “even with the vaccine, we probably will never reach herd immunity”, a sentiment echoed in an article from The Guardian which suggests that “even with 90% of the population vaccinated we would not likely see Omicron transmission dying out”.