As part of New York University's class of 2024, the entirety of my college career has been masked. Starting last week, however, NYU announced it was lifting our pandemic mask mandate and finally allowing students to make their own health decisions.
This policy change could have—and should have—come sooner.
At the start of the 2021–2022 academic year, NYU announced a 100 percent vaccination rate for students in university housing, with similar rates for other students. Boosters and mandatory testing were also required. The payoff for full compliance with these policies was supposed to be a return to normal, with a promise to evaluate after spring break in 2022. That deadline led to masking being made optional in outdoor spaces (something that was never necessary) with the classroom masking requirement remaining in place and an update from the university saying, "Over the coming days and weeks…we anticipate being able to ease mask-wearing restrictions further."
Yet the mask mandate remained in place despite low positivity rates and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's lifting of the state's mask mandate for New York public schools in March 2021.
Mask mandates in educational settings involve real trade-offs. Spending most of my college experience online made it challenging to get to know my classmates. Once we moved to in-person education in the fall of 2021, mask-wearing complicated the social aspect of college in new ways. Research in Trends in Neuroscience and Education validated this, saying, "hiding the lower part of the face with a face mask markedly impairs face recognition and face identification" something that is "taken for granted, and – like air for breathing – it does not come into focus unless it is lacking."
NYU says it is "home to the highest number of international students in the United States." Extending the mask mandate created a barrier for many students who do not speak English as a first language, as well as the students who study a second language, such as myself. The Trends in Neuroscience and Education study also highlighted how masks hinder verbal and nonverbal communication, especially in the context of multilingual learners. The study found that "we are forced to rely only on language and gesture, which limits the extent to which we can interpret nuance."
Despite these costs, NYU announced over the summer that masks would continue to be required heading into the 2022–2023 school year. On the first day of classes, however, students learned that faculty had the option to teach in-person classes without masks. While this likely improved communication and the quality of instruction, students, the vast majority of whom were vaccinated, were not permitted to make the same choice.
As of last Wednesday, I get to choose whether to wear a mask in class and on campus. It's not clear what makes last week different from the week before, or the week before that, but it's nevertheless a welcome change that NYU is finally treating its students like adults and paying customers.