HAIC and allies speak on masking policy

The February 23 rollback of on-campus mask mandates had many people celebrating and many others organizing in protest following a petition from Hope Advocates for Invisible Conditions (HAIC). “I don’t view lifting the mandatory usage of masks as a positive,” said Hope student and petition signer Seth Hays (’24), “I think it unnecessarily endangers our community….The fewer people we have wearing masks, the greater the chance of a widespread outbreak.” This week, The Anchor asked a few of the many students raising concerns about the new masking policy to explain their points of view.

Campus Health sent out an email on February 22 informing all personnel that masks are now optional except in class, at work, inside college-owned vehicles and in buildings that post signage mandating mask-wearing. The email encouraged students to embrace the “endemic” approach and “learn to live with the virus” while being considerate of students who might be less comfortable with this approach. It cited Hope College’s current low caseload, Ottawa County policies on disease prevention in educational institutions and new masking guidelines from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. It also acknowledged that this pandemic has been particularly difficult for people who are at higher risk for COVID infection. Despite this, life has become more complicated for immunocompromised students in the past week.

“Food is number one right now,” says Leah Reinardy (’23), president of HAIC. “It’s been the biggest concern….Phelps is inaccessible, Cook is inaccessible, even places like the Kletz where there’s online ordering—depending on the hour of day, that can also be a very dangerous place.” One of Reinardy’s new responsibilities is organizing volunteers to run food to students who can’t risk going to a dining hall where masking is no longer a given. “My biggest frustration is that this is a big change and we didn’t set up infrastructure beforehand. We could have taken another week and made sure we had food available; we could have made sure there were options for students who needed to access things in the library,” Reinardy says. “As a student, even as president of HAIC, I didn’t sign on for this.”

HAIC’s most prominent response to the new masking guidelines has been the creation of the petition, which has around 100 signatures so far according to HAIC’s e-board. It has also worked closely with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion to ensure that the Keppel House will remain a mask-required space. When asked about her response to the email, Reinardy said, “At first I saw the excitement around campus about this, but what followed for me was a wave of text messages and emails. I got two different kinds—one was ‘How can I help?’ and the other was ‘What are we going to do?’ I didn’t want to make this a bigger deal than it was, and I didn’t come out with pitchforks at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, but the fact that so many other people were reaching out to me when I hadn’t said anything? That was really powerful for me.”

While the immediate impact of this policy change is already significant, most of the people expressing concerns are worried about how it may impact the future. “Many of the people who have expressed concerns aren’t facing immediate health risks,” says Reinardy when asked about the comments on HAIC’s petition. “We’ve heard people with conditions saying, ‘I’m immunocompromised and I’m terrified.’ We’ve had people saying ‘I have mental health issues and I’m terrified.’ We’ve talked about healthcare disparities among marginalized groups — students of color, LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities that don’t make them immunocompromised but do drastically impact the way they are treated in medical settings. We’ve heard from people who have lost family members to COVID and people who are afraid of losing family members to COVID. We’ve heard people who have too many big events coming up in their personal or professional lives and can’t afford to get COVID, and from people who financially can’t afford to get COVID.” Other concerns included a resurgence of the virus or another mutation.

The reach of these questions goes beyond just Hope’s campus, as well. “One of my brothers has a chronic heart disease, which puts him at a higher risk for infection. If I get COVID, I’m sent home, and that could get him sick. So the relaxing of COVID protocols has me worried about spreading it to my family,” says Hays. “Because Hope sends students home when they get sick, this has more impact than just a campus issue.”

When asked what they would like to see out of students who are sympathetic to their concerns, Reinardy and Hays have a common reply: wear a mask. “I see a willingness to wear your mask as a sign of respect for others in the same way as, like, personal space,” Hays says. This is far from the only show of allyship that HAIC has advocated: reaching out to volunteer and signing their petition are other potential ways to reach out. “When you make masks optional, you essentially pull the student life aspect out of so many students’ college experience,” Reinardy says. “Is COVID a complex issue? Yes. Is policy-making a complex process? Yes. But when you’re not considering such a crucial perspective in a health conversation, you’re isolating those students […] Why are we taking these risks when we have a very cost-effective, health-effective solution in wearing a surgical mask?”

HAIC plans to continue its efforts to support students who are concerned about the rollback of mask mandates for the rest of the semester. They hope that with more support and information from their petition, along with the cooperation of other student leaders and department heads, they will be able to improve the accommodations for these students. “The question you ask yourself isn’t ‘do I have to wear a mask,’ it’s ‘should I be wearing a mask,’” says Reinardy. “Do you want to be truly inclusive? Do you believe that all students should be able to safely attend campus events? It’s hard to answer these questions ‘yes’ and then make masks optional.”

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