Is It Time to Take Our Masks Off?

Student participate in a classroom setting as part of a setup photoshoot portraying what student life will look like while wearing a mask and social distancing inside Strong Hall on July 10, 2020. Photo by Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee..........20200710_Strong_Hall_Staged_053

It’s hard to believe that months ago the semester was threatened with looming COVID-19 cases, and in a plea to stay on-campus the university implemented an indoor mask mandate. Now close to the end of the semester, what was once a symbol of the university’s commitment to keeping students safe has gone largely unenforced.

Unmasked students walking through the buildings are a common sight through the campus’s busiest buildings. This leaves people wondering if the university is backing the rule at all. Rarely are students ever reprimanded for going without a mask, as Hiwa Busally, a nutrition major, noted.

“(I was only stopped) one time, and after that, no one has stopped me,” he said. Busally, like many students, has gone through the semester with little interference from workers even as COVID cases rose during the early parts of the semester.

Some students suggest that at the root of the problem is a lack of incentive, or ability, to enforce the mandate. As with other organizations that have put in place mask mandates, enforcement would place an undue burden on workers, one that goes beyond their job descriptions. Hodges Library assistants, for example, don’t really have the authority to enact the mandate against maskless students. That, coupled with the heavy library traffic and the relatively low numbers of employees, have made the mandate feel like more of a suggestion than a rule.

“I feel that it’s kind of pointless if there aren’t a few people following it, it kind of throws the whole thing out the window,” said Wesley Chadwick, a business management major. “I feel that they always kind of took it as a joke.”

Natalia Acuna, a political science major, shares the sentiment.

“It’s basically turning a blind eye to our current situation,” Acuna said. “I think that the university should work to ensure the safety of not only the students but the workers as well”.

In spite of the lax application of the mandate, however, UTK is experiencing its lowest case numbers in months.

As far back as October, UTK has hovered around 30 active COVID cases and around 150 isolation/quarantine cases (note that the university didn’t provide quarantine support for students during the Fall 2021 semester, which may have resulted in underreported overall case numbers). Knox County has also reported record low cases since October. WIth cases dropping, plus a lackadaisical effort towards mandate enforcement, students are starting to wonder about the potential for an end to required mask usage.

While the prospect of not having to wear masks has both students and faculty alike excited, students like Lauren Boles, a global studies major, are still cautious about the effects of ending the mandate too soon.

“Just because there is a little drop in numbers, that’s great. That means it’s working, let’s keep doing it,” Boles said. “Let’s not stop and then watch it shoot back up again.”

As of this story’s publication, the university has not made any announcements regarding what next semester will look like in terms of COVID safety measures.

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