Staff Editorial: Reinstating the mask mandate was the right call, but GW sold it poorly

Flip-flopping on a decision in the space of two weeks is not generally seen as a good thing, but the exception is GW reinstating its indoor mask mandate just more than a week after it was dropped. With cases ticking up and Commencement on the horizon, this U-turn was the right call, but it also exposes deficiencies in GW’s communication with students about pandemic-era policies.

Coronavirus cases are starting to climb in the District and at GW fueled by BA.2, the more transmissible subvariant of the Omicron variant that has become the dominant strain of the virus. American and Georgetown universities reinstated their mask mandates shortly before GW did, after nixing them well ahead of GW’s decision to do so. Howard University has even taken the step to move the semester online to head off a potential surge in cases on campus.

Wearing masks is frustrating, there’s no two ways about it. But GW’s decision-making here was sound. If there is a potential for cases to go up, at-risk members of the GW community, like immunocompromised students, elderly faculty or anyone who is in more danger of poor outcomes, should not have to live in fear. Even beyond that, though, a surge in cases could put a significant portion of the student body in isolation right as finals are ramping up. Commencement is also approaching – graduating seniors who find themselves salty about the restoration of the mask mandate should consider that the alternative could be sitting in their apartment or GW isolation housing instead of graduating on the National Mall because someone coughed in their general direction.

But GW should have had a keener insight into what was going to happen when the mask mandate was lifted. It’s plausible to believe that cases would go up when students and professors started taking off masks as they bustled in classrooms and dining areas together, while cases ticked upward since the BA.2 subvariant took hold.

By announcing the major decision to reinstate the mask mandate in a brief email, the University reveals itself to be insensitive to the magnitude of the topic. Officials should release a clear, detailed report explaining why they were lifting the mask mandate, and now, why reinstating the mask mandate is necessary.

Cartoon by Maura Kelly-Yuoh | Cartoonist

GW’s communication style has been a perennial issue. Whether the University is in talks to increase governance or choosing a new University president, GW has a history of being insular in its decision-making processes.

The University should be prepared for what happens if more measures need to be taken around final exams to prevent the kind of panic that took place last semester when exams went online at the last minute. It is crucial that officials stress the reasoning behind reinstating mask mandate, so students are more inclined to take them seriously under administrative direction that does not seem to be completely firm currently. To avoid another semester with remote final exams or a postponed Commencement, GW should release a set of guidelines that could take in-person learning through the end of the year to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases across campus.

In a Washington Post op-ed Thursday, Lynn Goldman, the dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health, defended the decision to restore the mask mandate with a convincing case of how a surge in cases could be a nightmare for campus health and operations. An op-ed in The Post may be a good means of justifying the decision to those outside the GW community, but not necessarily members of the GW community itself. An eminent voice in public health was able to explain clearly to the outside world that heading off a surge in cases would avoid the havoc wreaked by much of campus needing to isolate at once, and would protect the many members of GW’s faculty who are in the over-60 demographic. Students got little of this detailed justification, and there is no reason why the University should not have gone into more detail.

GW made the right call but sold it poorly. Students are going to be frustrated with needing to wear masks either way, and that should not dissuade the University from taking the most prudent public health measures. But a yo-yo-esque mask policy is not going to make sense to students unless GW does a better job explaining why it is necessary in a way that students can understand and appreciate. It would not be a heavy lift and would go a long way to ease frayed nerves.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller and copy editor Jaden DiMauro.

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