5Cs face a crossroads on masking rules

A group of people carrying jackets and backpacks wear masks.
The results of a Pitzer-wide survey on the mask mandate showed that 31 percent of 408 Pitzer students who responded believed that Pitzer should lift its indoor mask requirement when LA County lifted its mandate, which happened last Friday. (HuxleyAnn Huefner • The Student Life)

As Pomona College relaxed its mask mandate for indoor meetings and Pitzer College lifted its outdoor masking requirement last Friday, students and community members were divided on how much farther, if at all, the schools should continue to roll back their face covering guidelines.

To inform its masking policy, Pitzer’s administration distributed a survey regarding student views on the use of masks on campus. The results of the survey, released in a March 4 Pitzer-wide email by Dean of Students Vince Greer, showed 31 percent of 408 Pitzer students who responded believed that Pitzer should lift its indoor mask requirement when LA County lifted its mandate, which happened on Friday

Of the respondents, 26 percent thought the college should lift the mask requirement with the exception that faculty members could set their own rules for their classes, while 43 percent said that Pizer should keep masks mandatory for the remainder of the semester. 

In total, 57 percent of students were in favor of some sort of loosening of the mask mandate, while 43 percent were against it. 

Among faculty, 17 percent favored getting rid of the mask mandate altogether, 26 percent stated that individual classrooms should be able to set their own rules, and 57 percent responded that the indoor mask mandate should remain for the rest of the spring semester.

In a flip from student results, 43 percent of professors chose some degree of looser mask mandate, while 57 percent wanted to continue the mandate. 

Of staff who responded to the survey, 37 percent felt that Pitzer should lift the mask mandate, 20 percent selected that the mask mandate should be lifted but individual courses could set their own rules, and 43 percent wanted the mask mandate to remain. 

All together, staff responses mirror the students, with 57 percent in favor of loosening and 43 percent in favor of maintaining the mandate.

Sophomore class president Kayla Mathurin PZ ’24 said that changes to the mask mandate represent a “slow scaling back” of the requirement and “do more good than harm to our community.”

When asked if she foresaw the mask mandate lifting, Mathurin said, “if we’re gonna be continuing 5C dining or 5C social events, I think that it’s important that we take this very slow.” 

“More testing, instead of once a week, twice a week” could bring about an end to mask mandates by next fall, she added.

Casey Xu PZ ’25 said she was “glad” the indoor mask mandate has been retained so far. The requirements for outdoor mask wearing were “a little complicated,” she said, “because we are still having a lot of classes outdoors.” 

She said she doesn’t want mask mandates to be lifted by the end of the semester, “and not even for the next school year.”

In response to Pomona’s easing of the indoor mask mandate, Johnny Ellsworth PO ’24, a leader for 5C DISCOVR, which advocates for students with disabilities, said that he doesn’t know whether the changes in masking policies will have any real effect. 

“It feels kind of ridiculous to take off your mask right when you get into the hallway,” he said. “I’m not sure how many people are actually going to.”

As to when he thought the colleges should lift the mandate, Ellsworth said, “It should happen when we’re out of the pandemic and we’ve gone weeks and weeks without any cases on campus.”

“[Lifting the mask mandate] should happen when we’re out of the pandemic and we’ve gone weeks and weeks without any cases on campus.”

Johnny Ellsworth PO '24

While cases have steadily declined since a peak that coincided with students’ return to campus in January, case counts could fluctuate as many students get ready to leave campus over spring break.  

“At the bare minimum,” Ellsworth added, he’d like to see the mask mandate stay put until at least until the end of the spring semester. 

As a member of Pomona’s COVID-19 Planning and Response Group, Nathan Tran PO ’23 was involved in the committee’s discussion as to whether the college should ease the mask mandate or keep it in place. 

Tran said that the committee “wanted to acknowledge student, faculty and staff’s reasonable desire for leniency” while at the same time being mindful of “the constant risk” of COVID-19 with special consideration for immunocompromised students.

According to Tran, the changes to allow unmasked indoor gatherings at Pomona were made to find the middle ground between immunocompromised students and those who wish to remove masks in one-on-one situations, contingent on both parties consenting to do so. 

For this reason, Tran said the committee decided to maintain the in-class mask mandate so some students aren’t able to “opt out,” which could pose a risk to students with varying levels of comfort regarding unmasked interactions in larger group settings. 

When it comes to how the college’s new policy might impact the community, Tran said he “[doesn’t] see [the new policies] as a significant change.”

Regarding the potential end of a mask mandate, he said the committee “doesn’t want to rock the boat too much.” 

“I personally would not expect any further revisions,” he said. 

Feng Xiao, associate professor of Asian languages and literature at Pomona, said that he didn’t think the alterations to the masking policy would have a “massive impact in terms of the risks [of COVID-19] on campus.”

He said he “probably [would] not” remove his mask during one-on-one office hours now that it is permissible. 

Peter Cembalest CM ’24, said he agrees with the 57 percent of Pitzer students in favor of ending the indoor mask mandate, and is ready for it to go.

Cembalest added that given his understanding of mask wearing at CMC and the other colleges, the new guidelines “are not much different than what [students] already were [doing].”

He said that, especially due to the lifting of the mask mandate in LA County K-12 public schools, the Claremont Colleges should follow the county’s lead.

“I want the 5Cs to lift the mask mandate now,” Cembalest said. “We’ve been in this pandemic for two years now, everyone has had three vaccines, the death rate is extremely low. I don’t think the pandemic is ever fully going to go away.” 

Still, at the 5Cs, “we have a very low risk of getting COVID-19, but I want to take extra caution,” Xiao said, especially for community members with underlying conditions. 

In regards to the difference between student and faculty responses in the Pitzer survey, he said that it makes sense, because “professors are on average more than 20 years older than students” and COVID-19 is an age-selective illness.  

The future of mask mandates on campus lies in understanding that “wearing a mask and not wearing a mask is not a binary,” he said.

Ideally, Xiao said, future mask policies will be based on “facts and science, not sentiment,” while balancing the stakes of those who comprise the campus community.

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