Portrait of young male student in medical mask holding college books and pointing. High quality photo

Mask On, Mask Off

In many ways—and more than I’d like to admit, honestly, as a professor who’s a big fan of tangents and quiet chaos—post-secondary education is about structure. While my courses aspire to a more free-flowing seminar approach, I teach my students that in order to be successful within the challenges of the academic journey, we must—as students and faculty—adhere to, and work within the confines of, an intractable (and often frustrating) structure. Beyond the pedantic constructs (class times, room numbers, parking spaces, etc.) we are asked to fit into more traditional and college-specific structures: style guides, grading systems, degree requirements in order to be “successful”. 

What I’ve learned in my two decades plus in the post-secondary world, is that students thrive when they are asked to operate within the institution’s rigidity but given permission to experiment outside of it. They are, for the most part, young adults in the throes of discovering how far they can push before they get pushed back—against their parents, against institutions like college, against life itself. That being said, certain parameters must remain in place to ensure a chance at success: the aforementioned pedantry in addition to semester lengths, tuition costs, and codes of conduct. These entities are static throughout a semester in order to provide students a foundation upon which to build their academic lives.

Which makes today all the more baffling.

Today is the first day since the March 2020 lockdowns that Connecticut community college students, faculty, and staff will be permitted to be on campus without wearing a mask. This, of course, despite the Omicron subvariant wave on its way, despite science, despite reason. But most importantly, it flies in the face of the foundational construct of the system that ensures students’ best chances for success.

We don’t change classrooms, or course numbers, or instructors, or class times, or grading rubrics mid-term. In my College Writing classes, I don’t ask that students employ the MLA style guide and then one day, tickled by whimsy, change to APA or Chicago. We’ve been wearing masks for more than two years, and though not an ideal accessory for the classroom, it has kept us exponentially safer (sorry anti-maskers, you’d fail my class for not employing scholarly sources) than we would have been without them. 

The psychological rigors of a masked classroom have placed a lot of pressure on faculty and students alike to reimagine their in-class dynamic. As neuroscientist, psychiatrist and author Manfred Spitzer contends,

  • Face masks impair face recognition and face identification. 
  • Face masks impair verbal and non-verbal communication. 
  • Face masks block emotional signaling between teacher and learner.

And yet they kept many of us (and our friends and family) alive, and have become part of the construct of the COVID classroom. So why remove them now? Why not ride out the semester (which has but 5 weeks remaining) and then revisit the policy through the filter of whatever science we have come the Fall semester?

There is no reason to, other than to kowtow to the volume of the misinformed and misled.

I understand businesses need to eschew the mask to allow public commerce to rebuild. But colleges have their tuition monies for this semester, there are no extra revenue streams to come until fall. Students, I have found, have become used to being masked. We all have. It has saved us. 

Not to be lost in this conversation is how colleges like Connecticut’s are declaring open season on students, faculty, and staff who are immunocompromised, and their friends and families. “Seen through a COVID-19 lens, about 3% of the population in the United States is considered moderately-to-severely immunocompromised, making them more at risk for serious illness if they contract COVID-19, even after vaccination.” That’s thirty members of college communities of 1000 whose right to feel safe on campus is being tossed aside for no reason at all.

The incompetent administrative bloat that makes these decisions do not spend time in classrooms. Their engagement with their community is at arm’s length, or zoom’s length rather. For those of us who pivoted to remote learning on the fly, and who have spent two years home-testing and living in worry of infection, this is a political decision that spits in our faces, with no masks to protect us.

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