I’ll admit being relieved when Governor Murphy announced a mask mandate for K-12 schools here in New Jersey. It gave us running room to establish a mask mandate on campus for fall, so we did.
This is an election year here in NJ, so I assume the decision wasn’t made lightly. I think it’s the right one, and I’m glad that we’re able to follow suit. It comes as the delta variant is spreading wildly, despite relatively high vaccination rates.
Prior to the announcement, I was getting questions about whether individual professors could set mask mandates for individual classes. The impulse is understandable, but from an enforcement perspective, it would be a colossal nightmare. This way is much simpler; we can send a message that masks are required indoors on campus, and then follow up with it consistently. Students, faculty, and staff will know what to expect. A campus-wide rule is also much likelier to achieve the desired effects on health than a patchwork would, since it covers hallways, offices, and gathering spaces as well as classrooms.
Students who object to wearing masks will be invited to sign up for online and/or remote live classes. We’re running a fair number of those, so students will have options. And I’ll admit I’m feeling very good about the idea of only requiring staff to be present in person for 60 percent of the workweek; fewer people in offices at any given time can reduce transmission. (Maintaining some level of remote work will also serve us well if some local K-12 schools have to close for a while, forcing parents to stay home.) Ideally, we’ll find good balances of onsite and offsite work while keeping people safe.
All of that said, I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t admit being frustrated that it has come to this, again. I was hoping — as were plenty of people — for something much closer to normal. For a while there, it looked like it might happen. Then the delta variant hit.
The good news is that people here seem to be taking it seriously. On last weekend’s grocery run, the store didn’t require masks, but the vast majority of customers wore them. That gave me some hope.
Vaccination is a trickier issue. We host a vaccination clinic on campus, so anyone who wants to be vaccinated can do so here, during work hours, for free. But we really don’t have the infrastructure to screen everybody on campus for vaccination status. The campus was built to be open to the public; it has entrances everywhere, by design. We don’t have dorms, so the illusion of some sort of “bubble” that some residential places like to indulge is a non-starter here. There’s nobody to check your papers at the entrance, even assuming that papers exist and can’t be forged.
With fingers crossed, I’m hoping that a mask mandate is as far as we have to go. With relatively high local vaccination rates, campus mandates for K-12 and higher ed, and high voluntary compliance in supermarkets and other indoor public places, I’m hoping that we can get this back under control before too much more damage is done.
Yes, it’s a change. But it’s the right change, and one that — I hope — may prevent a much larger and more difficult change. Fingers crossed!