University Health Services hosted a live Q&A forum with three University of Wisconsin officials Thursday about the expiration of the UW’s mask mandate.
Community members submitted questions online before the forum, asking why UW didn’t extend the mask mandate after Spring Recess and what the mask policies were at peer universities.
Other Big Ten schools are primarily looking at CDC recommendations for their local area when deciding mask policy, UHS Associate Director Carol Griggs said. The CDC currently lists Dane County as having “low” levels of COVID-19 community transmission, Griggs said.
One community member asked why UW didn’t extend the mask mandate until the end of Spring Break — to better account for students traveling outside Dane County and returning to campus.
Griggs said the one of the biggest factors UW was taking into account was the COVID-19 data for Dane County.
The current data shows UW can lift its mask mandate, Associate Dean for Clinical Trials and Professor of Medicine Dr. Nasia Safdar said.
“The time is now right to make this decision about not requiring masks,” Safdar said. “If we were in a different space, if there was still a surge, if there were a lot of hospitalizations, I don’t think we’d even be having this conversation.”
Despite the chance that the pandemic will evolve, it is still a good idea to take action based on the data in front of them, Safdar said.
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One point the UW officials emphasized is the importance of respecting all student and faculty decisions regarding decisions to wear a mask. UW wants to “reaffirm” that though no one is allowed to enforce a mask mandate in instructional spaces, it is one’s individual decision to make, UW Professor and Vice Provost John Zumbrunnen said.
Though UW will no longer have a mask mandate, professors can recommend their students to wear a mask, Zumbrunnen said. UW has given professors terminology to use when respectfully asking students to wear a mask, Zumbrunnen said.
“Navigating these moments is challenging, it requires some flexibility, some grace and a lot of patience with and care for one another,” Zumbrunnen said.
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Likewise, UW professors will need to respect the private physical and mental health needs of students, Zumbrunnen said. UW is working to provide students who don’t feel safe attending class with other modes of learning, Zumbrunnen said.
UW will not change how it supplies testing, vaccinations and masks, UW officials said. UW will still provide masks and antigen tests on campus. Testing will also still be available, not only for safety but also because it is how the university tracks asymptomatic cases, Griggs said.
UW will require unvaccinated students to continue testing until April 3 and unvaccinated faculty indefinitely or as determined by their contract, the UW officials said.
Because of these continued measures — and the data showing a surge is not likely — lifting UW’s mask mandate will not hurt people’s health, the UW officials said. The most important point will instead be respecting everybody’s individual decisions regarding masks, the officials said.
“[There is a need] for instructors and students and everybody else to be in frequent and open communication with one another and to work through the challenges that arise together,” Zumbrunnen said.
UW is planning to lift its mask mandate effective March 12 — the day its spring recess begins.