Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Washington, D.C., remained one of the most aggressively pro-masking municipalities in the country, and brought back the indoor mask mandate twice, for the delta and omicron waves. Mayor Muriel Bowser finally rescinded the mandate—hopefully for good—beginning on March 1, though masks remain compulsory for many school kids, commuters, and library visitors.
Across the country, government-mandated masking is mostly over, with air travel being a notable exception. But that doesn't mean mask mandates are dead and gone. Indeed, many college campuses still have mask mandates in place, even though their student populations are almost entirely vaccinated and at low risk of negative COVID-19 health outcomes.
George Washington University (GWU), for instance—located in Washington, D.C.—still has a universal indoor mask mandate in place and has no plans as of yet to get rid of it. This, despite the fact that the university requires students to be vaccinated and boosted, and tests them every other week.
Jack Elbaum, a sophomore at GWU, attempted to press the university administration for more details about why the mask mandate wasn't going away. He did not receive a satisfying response.
"I was, first, directed to the university's previous statements and, second, informed that GW has not changed its Covid-19 restrictions because of 'our recent spring break and the rise of the BA.2 variant [a subvariant of Omicron],'" he wrote in a piece for The Federalist. "To put it bluntly: this is not sufficient justification."
Elbaum tells Reason that GWU's policies make absolutely no sense.
"In practical terms, COVID-19 poses zero threat to the G.W. community, yet the administration keeps a policy in place that ensures the virus is on people's minds every day," Elbaum says.
GWU is hardly alone. Connecticut College still requires indoor masking, unless a student is eating or drinking, using the bathroom, or in his room with the door closed. Masks are still mandatory in the gym; they are even required while outdoors if students are in "close proximity" to each other.
New York University (NYU) forces students to wear masks unless actively eating or drinking, or unless they are shut away in their dorm rooms. The university is even picky about what kind of masks the students wear: no bandanas, scarves, or cloth masks.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) is similarly picky about masks and isn't planning to ease its mandate until April 11. "UCLA plans to relax its mandatory indoor masking requirements on April 11 for most students, faculty and staff who are up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations (including boosters), although indoor masking remains strongly recommended," wrote the university. "Until that date, please continue to follow the guidance below."
Many college campuses that have rescinded the mask mandate still require masks in the classroom, including the University of Michigan.
"I feel like the classroom requirement is burdensome on a lot of students," Mason Hinawi, a Michigan student, told The Michigan Daily. "(COVID-19) has been a cloak over everyone's social lives. I feel like it's time for things to start moving in the right direction here." The administration apparently disagrees.
Every college that still clings, desperately, to mask mandates must ask itself one simple question: If not now, when? Students are as safe as they can be, but the policies at GWU and other places treat them like the most uniquely fragile population on the earth.