Do All Pitt Students, Teachers Want to Ditch Their Masks?
Next week, University of Pittsburgh students can finally go maskless — but not all of them will.
Wearing face masks will be optional inside University of Pittsburgh facilities on all campuses starting Monday, March 28. The university’s Healthcare Advisory Group updated its mask guidelines earlier this week to align with the recently eased recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The new CDC recommendations place almost all counties with Pitt campuses in the low-risk category — the exception being Pitt Titusville in Crawford County, which is rated medium risk.
Pitt has required students, faculty and staff to wear face masks indoors since the fall semester of 2020, when students returned to campus for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Masks were also required outdoors on Pitt campuses until June 2021.
All of Pitt’s other COVID-19 mitigation policies, such as restricted building access and testing of unvaccinated individuals, remain in effect.
“While no longer required by the University starting on March 28, all members of our community are welcome to wear a face covering at any time, for any reason,” Pitt said in an email announcing the change. Pitt says it will continue to provide free surgical and N-95 masks at building entrances throughout all campuses.
Even though she welcomes the mask-optional policy, first-year Pitt student Izzy Seidman says it surprised her.
“I didn’t even think Pitt would do it this year,” Seidman says. “I figured they would do it next year.”
The change will bring a welcome sense of normalcy for Leigh Tanner, an education professor at Pitt, after two years of the pandemic. Tanner says she is pleased that she and her students will have the choice to stop wearing a mask; she said she will not wear one in class starting next week.
“From an instructor’s point of view, having students masked has often interfered with student/instructor communication,” Tanner says. “Not being able to always hear students clearly and read the expressions on their faces has often been difficult.”
Opinions about the mask mandate vary widely. Tanner says she would have preferred to go mask-optional last semester, but third-year student Catherine Cao says she still doesn’t think Pitt is ready to ditch the mandate until COVID-19 cases are lower.
“I understand that because it’s spring, a lot of people probably want to start taking masks off just because it’s nice, it’s gonna get hot,” Cao says. “But I feel like again, there hasn’t been a significant decrease in cases necessarily. It’s just been consistently where they would like it to be.”
While COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County are drastically lower than their peak in January, they may be on the rise again soon as the Omicron BA.2 subvariant becomes more prevalent in the U.S.
“Should the conditions in our communities change significantly before the 28th, the change will be revisited,” Pitt’s email announcement said.
For some, immunocompromised professors and students play an important role in the decision to mask up. Seidman says she will probably only wear a mask in her one class with an immunocompromised professor.
“I’ll wear it if I have an autoimmune-compromised professor and they need it,” Seidman says. “That’s totally fine. But I think in dorms and dining halls, where we’re all sitting around in a collaborative space where we’re constantly seeing each other, everything’s just gonna be spread out and I don’t think the masks are really doing anything there.”
Among staff, there will likely be a mix of faculty who do and do not feel comfortable maskless in the classroom, according to Tanner.
“I would imagine that some faculty members will continue to wear a mask and others won’t, but now having a choice in the matter is liberating,” Tanner says.
Now that COVID-related restrictions are becoming more relaxed, Cao is concerned that people who get sick will come to class — possibly maskless — instead of isolating.
“Because the COVID restrictions in general are going to be more relaxed, possibly people who are sick are just going to feel like it’s more lenient for them to be able to come to class,” Cao says. “And I won’t actually know if it’s just, like, a cough, if it’s COVID, if it’s a cold, so just because of that I’m still gonna wear them in classes.”
While Cao says her friend group and peers are generally as cautious as her, Seidman says she thinks the Pitt community is ready for change.
“I am pro-mask, pro-do-what’s-best-for-the-community,” Seidman says. “But I think it’s been a long two years, and I think there’s kind of been fatigue and everything. Everybody’s ready to take a break.”