When administrators decided in-person classes would return this fall, it was understood that strict adherence to COVID-19 policies was the only way to confidently make that decision. Among these, of course, included frequent testing, a vaccine requirement, and a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. From my observation, some students take these requirements very seriously, even wearing masks on their outdoor walks between classes. Others seem to be taking the partial return to normalcy for granted by not following our campus’s coronavirus policies.
From class to class, adherence to the mask mandate is generally inconsistent. I’m sure most of us have seen instances around campus where students wear masks below their noses or simply don’t realize it may have fallen while they’re speaking. I’ve seen it my fair share of times. GW’s coronavirus guidelines allow professors to remove their masks if they’re six feet away from students, but I’ve seen some remove their masks for lectures in classrooms that are too small for proper distancing.
When a professor breaks the mask mandate, their students and peers are able to report the incident to the provost’s office. But when a student breaks the mandate, there is no real system of accountability in place. For this reason, officials should require professors to enforce coronavirus policies in their classrooms and reprimand students who repeatedly ignore them.
When the reopening plan was first rolled out over the summer, hopes were high that vaccines would make mask-wearing virtually unnecessary. During this time, guidance was issued to professors that the University would be “open” and in such a scenario, professors were not to ask students to wear masks in the classroom. But since that guidance was issued, the University has reinstated its mask mandate and shifted its operating status to “open with precautions,” which resulted in increased testing frequency, limited guests on campus, and quarantine protocols for infected staff and students. This new operating status should include the ability for professors to enforce mask mandates in their classrooms and a set of tools professors and other students can use to crack down on students who repeatedly violate coronavirus protocols.
The issue is more important now than ever. Colleges made the deliberate choice to return to campus despite concerns over the Delta variant, knowing that they may have to tighten policy to accommodate a rise in cases. Many colleges and universities chose to reinstate their mask mandates, a crucial preventative measure designed to keep students and faculty safe. But it seems that these measures have not been enough, as cases persist and enough concern has grown to warrant a shift to a twice-per-month testing requirement. Surely, if case rates get dire enough, GW may be forced to put an end to in-person instruction once again, as outlined in the reopening plan. To prevent this, it’s crucial to ensure strict adherence to the University’s coronavirus policy and protocols, creating the necessity for a robust enforcement and reporting system focused on professors.
To achieve this, the University first needs to require professors to dole out consequences for not complying with the mandate. From there, professors should start with friendly reminders to adhere to policy for students who might let their mask fall below their nose, or forget to bring one to class. For those who continue to ignore mandates, professors should be free to report students for code of conduct violations, implement academic sanctions by lowering their grade if they don’t comply with the mandate or remove them from the class altogether.
Should a professor fail to encourage adherence to policy in their classrooms, the same reporting method used to report professors not following mandates could also be used to report professors not enforcing them properly. Administrators certainly hold leverage over professors, and should reasonably be able to enforce this policy among faculty.
Some professors are already doing their part to enforce mask mandates. For instance, one of my professors included in their syllabus that they would deduct a portion of our grade each time a student didn’t wear their mask after being asked once. This tactic seems to work, as I have been unable to spot a single person in his class wearing their mask improperly, let alone not wearing one at all.
To some, this solution may seem extreme – but such a solution may become necessary should cases rise again as they did during orientation week or during the week of Sept. 6, when the GW’s COVID-19 dashboard showed a spike in the number of daily positive cases. Fortunately, the case rate has declined since that uptick – ensuring mask mandate compliance will help keep it where it is now.
Ideally, students should wear their masks properly without enforcement methods in place. But officials need to implement a structure to remind them of that policy, and if necessary, take disciplinary action for risking the health of their peers. The University must ask professors to take on this responsibility, and impose some harsh, albeit, necessary guidelines to ensure that the students and professors stay healthy enough to stay in class.