Much like an ill-fitting face covering, compliance with GW’s classroom mask mandate was slipping well before the University ended the policy last Monday. But after three years of COVID-19, GW can finally breathe easy, or at the very least, maskless.
Though COVID is not over, the pandemic that infected GW’s community and culture with a cocktail of fear, uncertainty and doubt has come to an official close. GW was one of the last holdouts of the near-extinct mask mandate as the only “large,” “urban” campus in the U.S. with such a requirement still in place for its instructional settings. The departure of this once familiar “COVID culture” is also fading at the citywide level as D.C. prepares to close all of its eight COVID centers that provided D.C. residents with vaccines, boosters, testing and masks by March 31. The writing is on the wall – the “new normal” we have long waited for is officially upon us.
The end of the indoor mask mandate is the official close to this pandemic era of GW’s history. It is the last of the University’s major COVID restrictions to drop since students returned to a fully reopened GW in fall 2021. After experiencing GW from their own homes and or in a tightly regulated campus environment, students have joined an array of student organizations, made the most of D.C.’s nightlife scene and prepared for commencement on the National Mall since campus reawakened a year and a half ago.
Now, it feels like that effort to make the most of what GW and the District have to offer has gone into overdrive. Call it making up for lost time or not realizing what you have until it’s gone. Either way, students who have never known a pre-pandemic GW and those who still have distant memories of the 2019-20 academic year are following one simple idea – do something and do it now.
The end of the mask mandate was the finish line of a three-year-long marathon that tested each of us physically and mentally. While some mastered Blackboard, Webex and Zoom better than others, we tuned into class from childhood bedrooms, kitchen tables and impromptu offices. The year 2020 was an age of sourdough, sing-alongs and sorrow, a time when toilet paper ran low and emotions ran high.
When in-person learning resumed, every cough, sniffle and sneeze was an ill-omen – the virological equivalent of opening an umbrella indoors. Rain or shine, from dawn till dusk, we waited in line at the COVID testing trailer at H and 20th streets until swabbing our nostrils became ingrained in our collective muscle memory. Cases surged in September 2021, backed off, then spiked again before the week of final exams in December 2021, ensuring a virtual start to the spring 2022 semester.
We mourned the losses of those closest to us as 2021 came to a close. In a sea of white flags that grew so large it moved from the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium to the National Mall, we remembered those who died by the hundreds of thousands.
The University’s regulations waxed and waned along the way as we entered 2022, providing tantalizing glimpses of a post-pandemic GW – and dashing our hopes just as quickly. After briefly lifting the mask mandate in June 2021 and reimposing it the next month, officials did so again in April 2022 after only a week.
If past attempts are any sign, officials’ decision to drop the mandate last Monday may not be final. But both the state of COVID measures across the country and at universities has changed. GW’s community has a high COVID vaccination rate, and cases of COVID infection and hospitalization in the District have remained low for more than six months. So our attitude has changed, too. We are ready to move on.
The scars this virus has left will always remain, but the overwhelming fear of catching COVID, uncertainty about the University’s response to the pandemic and doubt about GW’s ability to manage caseloads has faded. Just look where we are nearly three long years removed from the start of the pandemic – at the beginning of last school year, we were practically barred from being in each other’s residence hall rooms. Now, it’s hardly uncommon to have your friends over for a party.
Thanks to multiple rounds of vaccinations and boosters, this virus is no longer the difference between life and death for most. But that’s not the case for everyone, especially those who are immunocompromised. So whether you prefer to wear a mask for peace of mind, need to protect your health or choose not to wear one, we all can and should explore these opportunities to the extent that we’re comfortable.
The pandemic showed each of us just how fragile our world and the people in it are. From the professors who teach us to the staff who keep GW running day to day and our friends and family, few of us have escaped the last three years unscathed.
The mask mandate has already been gone for one week. And from every week hereafter, it will be up to each of us to navigate Foggy Bottom, D.C. and beyond in a world that is quickly moving past the pandemic. With a little courage, commitment and confidence, we can make the most of this new normal.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Opinions Editor Ethan Benn and Contributing Opinions Editor Julia Koscelnik, based on discussions with Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Managing Editor Jaden DiMauro, Culture Editor Clara Duhon, Design Editor Grace Miller and Contributing Social Media Director Ethan Valliath.
This article appeared in the March 6, 2023 issue of the Hatchet.