Following a period of loosened public-health guidelines and relatively low Covid-19 caseloads, a handful of universities are bringing back mask requirements on campus — in many cases, just weeks after rescinding them.
While many of the colleges reinstating mask mandates have a vaccination rate higher than 90 percent, campus leaders say they are taking steps to curb the disease’s transmission as the highly contagious BA.2 variant becomes its dominant strain in the United States.
Campus mask policies have ebbed and flowed over the past couple of years. Some colleges rolled back their mandates last year, but a few reinstated the policies when the Omicron variant surged.
Other colleges stopped requiring masks recently, after students returned from spring break. Many institutions made the change in March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said most people in the United States could stop wearing masks indoors if they lived in areas with low to medium risk.
Last week, however, Georgetown University temporarily reinstated an indoor mask requirement on its main and medical-center campuses. Georgetown’s leaders had moved the university to a mask-optional policy about two weeks earlier. Last week’s announcement cited a “significant increase” in the number of Covid cases.
“These circumstances present a challenge, but we have learned to adjust our mitigation measures to respond to changing conditions throughout the pandemic,” wrote the university’s chief public-health officer, Ranit Mishori, in a message to the campus. “Another adjustment is needed now to curb transmission on campus.”
American University, also in Washington, D.C., plans to reinstate its mask mandate on Tuesday, according to The Eagle, the student newspaper. Cases have been on the rise since university leaders made masks optional, on March 21.
George Washington University also brought its mask mandate back, just one week after discontinuing it. Even before the mandate was reinstated, students were still largely choosing to wear face coverings, according to The GW Hatchet, the campus newspaper.
After a wave of students returned from spring break, officials at the Johns Hopkins University pointed to an influx of positive cases as the reason for expanding campus masking requirements last week. While students and faculty members were already required to wear face coverings in classrooms, masks will once again now be mandatory in residence-hall common areas and dining facilities. In response to the nearly 100 undergraduates who reported a positive test during the first week of April, the university is also requiring all undergrads to be tested twice a week until at least April 22.
Rice University, in Texas, also brought back a masking requirement last week, after reporting about 145 new cases over the previous few days — most of them among undergraduates. The policy requires everyone, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face covering in classrooms, with the exception of instructors who are delivering lectures.
Rice officials say the students who have contracted the coronavirus are either asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms.
In Philadelphia, all colleges will need to reimpose mask mandates in public indoor areas starting on April 18, according to a Monday announcement by the city’s health commissioner. The guidance applies to all indoor public spaces, making Philadelphia the first major American city to reinstate a mandate, after rolling it back on March 2.
Columbia University reinstated a mask-wearing policy in classrooms on Monday, though university leaders say the campus remains low-risk and the change was made out of “an abundance of caution,” given the uptick in the number of cases in New York City.
This story has been updated to reflect that George Washington University reinstated its mask mandate.