Mask mandate lifted for winter break

Task Forces’ masking policy for spring semester is expected in January

By Hunter Ellis, Managing Multimedia Editor

Effective as of last week, the indoor mask mandate has been lifted on Xavier’s campus.

“Beginning Dec. 1, 2021, Xavier University will remove the mandate for wearing masks indoors. While masks will no longer be required indoors, all community members are welcome to continue wearing a mask,” a campus message sent on Nov. 18 read. 

The message cited low numbers of cases on campus and high vaccination rates as reasons for the decision to remove the mandate.

However, this may be just a temporary measure, as the COVID-19 Task Force has not yet made a recommendation on what the university’s masking policy will look like next semester.

“Let me be clear, we haven’t made a decision on no mass for next semester. But what we’ve said is we’re lifting the mask mandate at this time,” Chair of the COVID-19 Task Force Jeff Coleman said.

As it stands, the lifting of the mask mandate is just effective during the break.

“Given our current numbers, and the fact that we’ll have a limited number of people on campus, it made sense to lift the mask mandate,” Coleman said. 

He noted that the task force is hopeful the university can have a semester without masks in the spring, but acknowledged the decision will depend on several factors. 

“Our plans are to look at our situation again (towards the end of December). We’ll look at what’s happening across the country and in the region, and then we’ll make a decision on next semester,” Coleman said.

“I could see a situation where masks may be required in classrooms, for example. It could be that we start out with more limited masking next semester, and then lift the mask mandate as the semester progresses. We could start out with no mass mandate… but we’re going to play it by ear and we’re certainly going to weigh in on the great track record that our students have as we decide on what next semester is going to look like,” he added.

Coleman expects the task force to make their recommendation about masking policy in early January, though they are ready to pivot at any point.

“Everybody’s going to be anxious to see what happens after holiday gatherings. I’m guessing that when the staff are fully back on campus the week of January 3, the task force will take a really close look at what’s happening nationally in this region and make a decision at that time,” he said.

One of the key factors playing a role in the masking decision is Xavier’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the upcoming semester. By Jan. 3, students must be fully vaccinated or have a university-approved exemption.

Coleman said that just over 200 medical and religious exemptions have been granted by the university for staff members and students. These community members will be expected to continue masking and undergo regular testing.

The task force has also had conversations about the effect of the vaccine mandate on retention at the university, but Coleman noted it’s difficult to put an exact number on the effect the mandate had on enrollment.

“Around 150 students had holds placed on their accounts because they did not show proof of vaccination. But, if you look at those students, 25% of those students are graduate students… who may be postponing their graduate studies,” Coleman said.

“A majority of (the number of undergraduate students) were first year students. So you know, those could be students who have just decided that Xavier is not the right place for them or needed to pause after one semester for whatever reason,” he added.

The task force noted that around 300 students received a COVID-19 booster shot at the clinics offered near the end of the semester, but the task force has not made any decision as to whether a mandate for the booster will be put in effect. 

“Whether or not (a booster shot) becomes incorporated into some type of mandate remains to be seen. We’re still so early in that process and we’ll await some additional guidance from the CDC and the Ohio Department of Health to see how that plays out,” Coleman said.

When looking at policies for the upcoming semester, Xavier is also leaning on its three semesters of experience of dealing with the pandemic.

According to Coleman, the COVID-19 Task Force started the fall semester concerned when cases spiked towards the end of August. 

“We saw this surge in cases that we weren’t anticipating because over 80% of those cases were breakthrough cases,” Coleman said.

The rise in cases led the task force to take action, recommending masks in the HUB as well as in residential common spaces.

This high number of cases proved to be an outlier, though, as the number of cases on campus declined as rapidly as they spiked.

“After August 30, the numbers just just dropped off a cliff. It was amazing how quickly they declined, it was great. And since mid-September, our numbers have been incredibly low,” he said.

“Over the last month of the semester, we had fewer than 10 active cases on campus, which for a campus of over 7,000 students, faculty and staff, that’s very encouraging for us. So, we were very pleased with how things went. We’ve got some of the processes pretty well in place… so nothing came our way that we weren’t prepared for and are able to pivot toward,” Coleman added.

Another unprecedented challenge for the upcoming semester is the risk of transmission at sporting events and other indoor gatherings that bring outside community members in close contact with the campus community. 

“For every home game we’ve had, enforcement of the mandate has a challenge… saying you have an indoor mask mandate for events like a Men’s Basketball game doesn’t really have a measurable impact on the behavior pattern of the fan base,” he said.

While the number of cases on campus have decreased, Coleman noted that he hopes the conversation around the pandemic will shift from case numbers to individual risk management.

“I think there’s a need for the campus community to start focusing on not just the active case numbers, since COVID is not going away. Right now, we have more active flu cases on campus than we do COVID cases… So what’s the risk, and what’s the appropriate measure to take to mitigate that risk? Is it having individuals wear masks in most of their environments? I don’t think that’s the answer long term,” Coleman queried.

If the mask mandate is lifted to start the spring semester, Coleman said it will be spurred by a  communal commitment. 

“I can’t say enough how great the students have been helping us get through these last three semesters — it’s just been incredible,” he said.

“If you look at our track record here at Xavier, I would hold it up against any university across the country. We’ve been able to keep our students on campus and keep them in the classrooms. And that’s due primarily to the students taking this seriously and helping us with our safety protocols,” Coleman concluded.