Howard University announced that the main and west campuses will officially transition to an optional mask policy. The university also suspended the mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing policy for staff and students and now only requires testing for those who are exhibiting symptoms. The policies went into effect on June 10 and May 30, respectively.
The revised mask policy explains how, after seeing a spike of cases at the end of the Spring 2022 academic semester, the university has since observed a decline in positive COVID-19 cases on Howard’s main and west campuses. The Office of University Communications expressed in an email on August 3, that they are in a “better position” to handle COVID-19 due to their past two years of managing the pandemic.
While the mask mandate will become optional, the university maintains that students and staff are required to be fully vaccinated in order to be allowed on campus. Students must also wear masks in university sponsored transportation and will be required to follow the guidelines of university health care facilities. Daily BisonSafe screenings are also still required for all students and faculty.
“We will continue to require vaccines and boosters, which have proven to be the most effective means to limit severe illness and hospitalization,” the policy, signed by Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony Wutoh and Dean of the College of Medicine Hugh Mighty, stated.
Howard’s new mask policy aligns them with Washington, D.C. colleges, such as American University, Georgetown University, George Mason and Gallaudet University, who have all moved to an optional mask policy in the month of June. The policy also aligns with D.C.’s guidelines as the District has no mask mandate. The D.C. Department of Health still recommends wearing masks in public spaces.
The university’s decision to transition to an optional mask mandate came amid a COVID-19 case spike, as D.C. had seen one of the biggest surges of positive cases in July than it has in months. Positive cases in D.C. were less than 2 percent on average in the beginning of 2022 and had risen to 9.56 percent leading into Independence Day weekend. The university stated in the email sent on Aug. 3 that the campus community is almost completely vaccinated, which they believe will put Howard at “a much lower risk for severe illness compared to the general population.”
A 2022 outbreak of Monkeypox, a viral disease spread through close personal contact, has threatened to impact university protocol as well. Cases for Monkeypox have risen to over 200 in D.C. according to the Center for Disease Control. The university has reached out to students to spread awareness, but have not put any protocols in place for Monkeypox.
“Depending on community transmission levels, severity of infection, hospitalization rates, or other risks in the future, we may reinstate the indoor mask requirement, and/or incorporate other restrictions as needed,” Wutoh wrote to The Hilltop.
Some students and parents express their concerns with the revised mask policy and hope that Howard will encourage students to still wear masks and uphold their COVID-19 guidelines.
“Given what’s going on in local jurisdictions, counties and the District of Columbia, most of those jurisdictions have removed mandatory mask requirements. I would not necessarily expect Howard to be different but I think they should strongly encourage staff, students and faculty to utilize masks,” an unnamed parent of a Howard University junior said in an interview with The Hilltop.
Parents and students have also spoken of their disapproval of the university’s COVID-19 protocols in the 2021-2022 school year. While interviewing students who quarantined on Howard’s main campus in Spring 2022, many expressed they were moved into private rooms in the same buildings with COVID-19 negative students and quarantine protocols were not enforced.
“The lack of available space and efficiency with COVID protocols has me questioning the removal of the mask mandate…I believe Howard as an institution needs to put more effort into the COVID-19 protocols,” Simone McKinny, a Howard University student who contacted COVID-19 and quarantined in line with university guidelines, said.
University faculty also continue to be vocal about feeling “unprotected” by the pandemic protocol, as they’ve said in the Fall 2021 semester in a letter to President Wayne A.I. Fredrick. Faculty had also been vocal about Howard upholding their vaccine requirements. A week after the letter, they detailed in a second letter to Fredrick explaining how, although they were assured by Wutoh that all students would be vaccinated, less than two-thirds of the students body had provided proof of vaccination.
While the number of COVID-19 cases on the university’s campuses has declined to under 50 cases on average, the most recent surge of positive cases occurred in early April 2022, about a month before the school year ended, with over 300 cases. There is no statement from the university on their predictions concerning the number of positive cases they will see on their campuses when the majority of students return in the fall.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew