Due to decreased COVID-19 cases across North America, most state legislations including Pennsylvania have lifted their mask mandates. Along with them, Mercyhurst University has recently made some changes to their mask policy.
“Because we have such a high vaccination rate on campus and we’ve seen the numbers of COVID cases drop in Erie, I’m very excited about the mask mandate being fully lifted,” said Laura Zirkle, the Vice President for Student Life at Mercyhurst.
“However, we are going to continue monitoring positive cases closely. One of the things that has been clear throughout this pandemic is that masking is one of the best mitigating factors we can implement. Our current plan is to monitor the amount of COVID cases on campus with different variants emerging. I’m hoping that people spending more time outside, our high vaccination rates, and the dropping COVID cases in the area will converge to make it so we don’t have to digress back to masks”.
In February, the indoor mask mandate at Mercyhurst University was lifted everywhere except for in academic classes. The purpose of this lift was to test if positive cases would stay low and a complete lift of the mask mandate at a later date would be possible.
“The concern about classrooms is that you have people together from all different groups who usually don’t spend time together. There are also people going on and off of campus and commuters which makes classroom environments a little riskier,” Zirkle said.
“Part of the reason we lifted the mask mandate in phases was to give us a chance to see whether cases would spike before completely lifting it. We talked to the health department and our medical consultants, and we felt like we were at a point where it made sense to only require masks in classrooms. With everyone going on spring break so soon after the announcement our biggest concern was confusion by us telling students and faculty to go from not wearing masks indoors to wearing them again. Luckily the COVID numbers in Erie were so low that we were able to just keep the mandate as we had it”.
On March 27, Zirkle sent an email to the Mercyhurst community announcing that masks will no longer be required in academic classes. Those who want to wear their masks still can, and there is an updated COVID-19 policy on the Student Hub. Type “COVID-19 Information” into the search bar on the Hub to view it.
“We’ve tried to be really upfront with everybody in the community and make clear what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I know that students and faculty receive really long emails at times, but that’s because it is important to us that you don’t think we’re just arbitrarily doing this. We weigh all the factors for every given decision because this is new territory for all of us” Zirkle said.
In the event that COVID-19 cases on campus get out of hand, administration has also considered reverting back to masking indoors as a possibility.
“If we can get some time without masks and maybe never have to put him back on, that would be awesome. It feels like a reasonable time to take masks away,” Zirkle said.
“I’d rather do it now even if it means that at a later date, we have to bring the mask mandate back due to a variant. I feel that our community understands the importance of mask mandates and why we feel the need to use them. Hopefully it doesn’t happen, but if we had to go back to masking for the safety of the community on this campus, I think that there will be an understanding that we are doing it out of caution and the time without masks will still be appreciated despite the disappointment of having to wear them again. I don’t want to make it sound like we are planning on masking again, but it is always an option if necessary.”
Although masks are no longer required on campus, Zirkle. along with the rest of the administration team that came to this decision, implore students to use good judgment and wear masks when they feel it is necessary.
“I would ask that if you see someone still wearing a mask be thankful. There are a lot of reasons that people may choose to continue wearing a mask like if someone is showing symptoms, going to be in a really crowded area, or even about to visit someone who is high-risk. We have folks on campus who have children who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated so they’re at a higher risk. Those people have to look out for their kids. I would encourage everyone to use good judgment on whether to wear one when they feel it is appropriate and to be supportive of others who chose to wear one,” Zirkle said.
Despite the excitement of being so close to normalcy on campus, the concern for protecting one’s own health as well as the health of others still exists.
“I was really excited about it; [the recent mask lift] as much as I would still love to take precautions and protect people, I am very tired of this pandemic,” said Sophia Supinski, a freshman dance major.
Being in a learning environment during a pandemic has required a lot of adapting from the students, teachers, and other faculty members here at Mercyhurst. However, pre-pandemic university life is closer in reach than ever.
Zirkle said, “I have such an amazement and appreciation for how much the community at Mercyhurst has acted during all of this. I get emotional thinking about how supportive my peers have been in stepping up and doing extra work to help out students. It’s been a positive experience to see how this community has handled everything. I know that this all has been extremely difficult for some people and yet I’ve seen our community handle everything with good faith, good nature, and compassion.”