Column: Mask-optional is the way to go, but we can’t give up on safety

GW’s decision to go mask optional in most indoor spaces brings a welcome relief from two years of health restrictions that have burdened student life. Being able to interact with our entire faces will restore a fundamental degree of communication and emotional health that masks had previously obscured. With this change comes an opportunity to reflect on the social benefits of maskless life and discuss how the University can still sustain a COVID-safe campus.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the debate about mask mandates has revolved around the question of collectivism versus individualism. When does a policy meant to keep a community safe no longer justify the imposition on individual freedom? For GW’s mask mandate, that time has come. Our methods of fighting the spread and severity of the pandemic have evolved, case rates and hospitalizations in D.C. are low and the University’s mask mandate came with a substantial burden to our collective social-emotional health.

When considered in isolation, masking might appear to be a subjective burden affecting only the individual. And there is truth to this. No doubt my opinion here is partially based on my personal discomfort with masking. But we cannot assume that the social and emotional detriments of mask mandates are merely individual or entirely subjective.

It turns out science backs up how mask mandates affect the social-emotional health of entire communities. A March 2021 report published in the scientific journal Nature details an array of concerns about the way masks alter our social well-being. The mouth is central to recognizing emotions, especially happiness, and because masks obscure a large part of our faces, they may “impair emotion recognition and trust attribution,” which in turn compromises the social-emotional connections that normally “boost social bonds, empathy and playful interactions.” The burden of mask mandates is especially concerning for children, who are still developing emotional recognition skills. But social, mental and physiological well-being are also interdependent for college students and should all play into conversations about public health.

It makes sense why the administration would keep the mask mandate in effect for the classroom, which is one of the only indoor spaces where students, under a professor’s gaze, still consistently mask. But it’s clear this semester that GW’s indoor mask mandate has lost its hold over most students. If there truly was widespread concern about COVID exposure among students, you wouldn’t find vast numbers of us unmasked at crowded restaurants, parties and clubs. It seems likely that if the mask mandate were lifted for the classroom as well, most students would happily choose not to mask.

As the pandemic continues to play out, GW should consider extending the mask-optional policy to the classroom, where better social and emotional communication would be helpful for teaching and learning. The administration might gain more support for that change if they pursued a compromise like at Howard University, where masking is optional but faculty can require masks in their classrooms. A similar system of case-by-case compromises would better cater to individual GW community members who face varying social costs and protective benefits of masking.

Although GW is mask optional in most indoor spaces, masking still grants much-needed protection. The New York Times reported in April that although masks work best when everyone in the room has one, “a tightly sealed” N-95 mask grants the wearer 79 to 90 percent protection from actual coronavirus particles, according to data from Tokyo. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the technique of covering a surgical mask with a cloth mask, known as double-masking, “reduced exposure to simulated cough particles by 83 percent.” So even if the University were to extend the mask-optional policy to the classrooms, scientific data assures that students can still attend in-person classes safely without a mandate hanging over them.

Although the new mask-optional policy is a welcome change, we must continue to discuss COVID safety on campus. And we especially cannot forget the needs of those in our community who are most vulnerable to infection. Officials’ decision in June to lift the mandatory testing requirement has prompted valid concerns from students who are immunocompromised.

Biweekly testing was convenient and effective. Without it, we are far less able to detect asymptomatic cases and set COVID-19 policies based on complete community data. Even now that we are mask optional, individuals can still make the choice to mask, but without mandatory testing, we all lose out on a tool that has thus far been central to GW’s pandemic response. The administration’s choice to end the testing requirement and then go mask optional was foolish and externalizes the costs of pandemic life onto students.

In our current setting of low case numbers in D.C., high vaccination rates on campus and widespread maskless activity outside the classroom, GW’s mask mandate gave us an unmeasurable, but likely marginal, level of community protection. And it levied an unmeasurable, but definitive, tax on our social-emotional health. Going mask optional is a welcome change, but it cannot come at the expense of total complacency with regard to public health. In the interest of continued COVID safety, GW should return to mandatory testing and encourage the use of N-95 masks. But the choice to wear them should be yours.

William Bosco, a senior majoring in philosophy and political science, is an opinions writer.

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