The change comes amidst a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases on campus — there are currently four active student cases, according to the College’s COVID-19 Dashboard, and 305 total cases since the beginning of the spring semester.
Although under Activity Level 0, or “baseline precaution,” masks are no longer required indoors, instructors may still require masks in classrooms at their discretion. Additionally, there are no capacity restrictions on events or informal student gatherings. This marks a shift in previous restrictions under Activity Level 2, which had been in place since Feb. 16 in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus. It required students to wear masks indoors in all public spaces except while actively exercising or eating, and limited indoor gatherings to 85% capacity and outdoor gatherings to 50 people.
The change follows newly updated CDC masking guidance. On Feb. 25, the CDC released a system of Community Levels, a tool intended to assess risk in individual counties and respond accordingly with prevention strategies. The levels, which include “Low,” “Medium” and “High,” are determined on the basis of three metrics: new COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past seven days, the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and total new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days. Knox County is currently at the Medium Level, which suggests masking for those at high risk for severe illness, but does not encourage sweeping mask mandates. The College intends to remain at Activity Level 0 unless Knox County moves into a High COVID-19 Community Level.
Many students welcomed the news of the mask mandate being lifted. “At this point in the pandemic we know enough about the virus and our personal risk level to make our own decision about how to protect ourselves,” William Yanek ’23 said.
However, some view the change as too hasty. Professor of Biology Joan Slonczewski expressed concern over the risk of transmission in congregate housing and the effect of the new policy on immunocompromised students. “It’s not fair to the community to give up masks yet,” Slonczewski wrote in an email to the Collegian. “We’re all used to masks; wait till the summer.”
In a news bulletin emailed to students and employees on Wednesday, Chair of the COVID-19 Steering Committee Drew Kerkhoff acknowledged that while the College’s previous efforts have been helpful in keeping cases down on campus, they did not come without drawbacks. “We also must recognize the cost that we have collectively paid; masks impair our ability to communicate both verbally and visually, and our efforts have left many feeling painfully isolated and disconnected from their community,” Kerkhoff wrote in the email.