Vulnerable students at risk due to changes in campus mask mandate

Illustration by Faith Gallegos

At the time of publication, Lewis & Clark has extended its CAS campus mask mandate to April 2. I believe that this is less than the bare minimum, especially for members of the community that still face a significant risk from COVID-19.

Consistently, disabled members of the community are indirectly told we are not welcome on campus. Those with mobility issues often have to take longer routes to and from class, and cannot access the numerous buildings that do not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act(ADA) standards. It was not until this year that LC undertook any major effort to increase accessibility of Templeton Student Center, and it will be at least another year until Stewart and Odell Halls are up to ADA standards. This does not even mention the all-too-prevalent bureaucratic hoops students must jump through in order to receive any in- or out-of-class accommodations for their disabilities.

Now, we have a new mask policy that completely disregards the opinions and well- being of disabled people both on and off campus. Anyone who has kept up with research regarding COVID-19, or even knows the basics of germ theory and epidemiology, knows that so- called “individual choice” is not enough to protect even our least vulnerable people, let alone those of us at high risk. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the journal of Medical Devices and Sensors and The Lancet all confirm this. The decision to remove masking requirements is not based on any real science and only puts people in harm’s way.

When the requirement for community members to wear masks is removed, we are placing all community members at greater risk. Most of us are left with far fewer options for protecting ourselves. We have already seen a significant number of cases even with a very high vaccination rate and an enforced mask policy. How do we expect removing one of our most important lines of defense to help our community? Instead of being upheld by those we have trusted to prioritize our safety, the impetus to keep our community reasonably safe is placed on those who are most threatened by a lack of protection.

It is also important to acknowledge the timing of this shift in policy is completely unreasonable for all involved. This happens to be after the state of Oregon is lifting its mandate, but for many community members, we are past the point of no return for the semester. When enrolling for this term, we, as students, agreed to the safety measures being enforced at the time, which included masking. For those who do not want to wear masks, keeping the mandates in place is an expected inconvenience. For those who do want to continue campus-wide mask wearing, removing the mandate is a dire matter.

For students, even if they do withdraw from classes they can not safely attend, they will receive a W for “withdrawn” on their transcripts, and lose the money they paid for tuition, room, board and other associated fees. Totals somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000. Many staff and faculty members may be in an even harder position, being contractually obligated to remain through at least the end of the semester. While it is worth noting that faculty members, specifically, do have the authority to require masking in their spaces, reducing mask wearing in a significant capacity will still put them and the rest of campus at higher risk through increased overall transmission rates and the contamination of various

spaces around campus. This also does very little to help other members of the community avoid overall COVID- 19-related risks; after all, a few hours of class time make up only a fraction of a person’s time on campus.

Claims that those of us who still want to keep our community as safe as possible should simply make personal decisions based on individual risk factors are uninformed and dangerous. We cannot just pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and willpower our way to health. There are very real, inescapable realities that will put us at more risk than we may be able to handle. Some of us work jobs where masks will no longer be enforced, and we cannot afford to simply quit or find a safer alternative. Some of us attend classes where professors cannot or will not enforce mask wearing, with no clear path through official channels to receive effective accommodations. Some of us live with folks who are high risk and cannot simply move out to keep them safe.

LC community members are now being forced to constantly justify their concerns to disinterested peers and authority figures. Back when the mask mandate was set to be lifted in March, I remember one of my classes discussing what our class should do in regards to continuing safety measures. One student mentioned they should not have to wear a mask when asked, unless they knew for sure the concerned party had a good reason. In another class, a different student mentioned that it should not be their job to keep anyone safe, because they had already been wearing masks for two years and had been vaccinated. Why should it be the job of those most at risk to disclose their personal medical history and put themselves in an even more vulnerable position just for a chance at some semblance of safety? It should not.

I know masks are not fun. I know they can be uncomfortable, especially when you have to wear it all day with no breaks between classes, work and extracurricular activities. Foggy glasses, clogged pores and having to remember another vital accessory on top of your wallet and keys are all annoying. However, we cannot allow ourselves to be the kind of school that puts each other at risk in exchange for a little extra comfort. LC can, and must, be better than that.

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