Students debate mask mandate repeals

On Tuesday, March 1 at approximately 4 p.m., the Campus Health Advisory Team released an update for the campus community regarding the frequently shifting mask mandate on campus. Per the email, the regulations have taken a major alteration for the second time throughout the school year. As of Wednesday, February 23, masks have become optional in all spaces except for classrooms and instructional spaces, any campus-owned vehicles like the shuttle, large scale campus events or specific buildings with their own expectations and indoor employee workspaces; all other locations have been elected as a user choice zone which includes major spaces like dining halls and the library. 

The initial mask mandate that went into effect during the 2020-2021 school year required masks in all spaces on campus, including walking to and from all buildings while outdoors. Since the virus has developed, altered and begun to diminish, the Campus Health team has been diligent in keeping their protocols up to date to prevent the virus’s spread. Gradually, these mandates have lessened, and, within this year, students have been able to enter dorm buildings and personal rooms without face coverings. Even the masking requirement while working out in the Dow Center was removed for a brief period in the fall semester. Unlike most state colleges or universities, Hope College relies on information from Ottawa County as well as a board of members to determine what enforcements should be deployed. According to Campus Health, Hope’s student body cases dropping to less than one percent, as well as the county’s shifting guidelines inspired the recent alteration. 

The debate around masks plays out in the Bultman Student Center

However, these lessened restrictions have not been met with the most joyous reactions from everyone. Debates have opened up between people about the more ethical responses to lessening the mask restrictions. People taking on extra precautions and responsibilities with the dilemma are resident assistants and directors who live with large groups of students, and whose lives revolve around the safety and wellbeing of their residents. Taryn Meyer (’23) is an RA in Voorhees who has felt the impact of the mask change: “In some ways, the mask mandate was easier because I didn’t have to do a cost-benefit analysis for every interaction.” In everyday interactions, the choices have doubled and it becomes a decision for the respective parties to debate about. But there are also personal qualms that she faces: “I am still trying to figure out my own comfort levels with masking… and it is important that there are spaces that everyone can feel comfortable in.” 

With similar ideas, Alex Mathew (’24), who also happens to be a member of the residential life team, has to face the reality that the change in mandate has brought about a pool of different opinions and manners in which people will respond. He says that he believes that the mandate will be reversed again if the cases start to increase as before and that such a flip will affect the student body. He states, “If we keep face coverings mandatory there will be more people that will want to rebel since we have already made them optional.” However, Mathew’s thoughts about people’s reactions have already come to fruition. 

Even before the change in the mandate, rumblings of unrest have shifted the ground underneath Hope College’s feet. At the beginning of January, a social media account erupted that was adamant about the complete removal of facial coverings and masks from the college’s campus. A petition was offered to implement the removal of masks and arguments have been posted saying that the Campus Health team suffers from mental illness, thus rendering them incapable of leading the student body. The account posted a photo with the quote “Masks are a Joke” and asked followers for support in removing the requirement for masks, stating, “We are fighting for freedom from masks at Hope College. We believe we should have the choice to wear a mask or not.” Several students have made comments on the account’s singular post, arguing against claims made that face coverings have no use, but a handful of students continue to follow the account and provide it with support. 

The @unmaskhopecollege page’s first and only post

While the account represents a face of the Hope community that fully supports the shifting mandate, there are still others who would appreciate a return to full-mask policies. Anna Koenig (’23) is a resident assistant in a cottage, soon to be a neighborhood coordinator, who feels that the reversal of the policies was a “rushed” decision for the campus. She states that “I think for us as a campus, we are intentionally not listening to [the immunocompromised] community with this decision.” There is no telling how many students or faculty on campus are immunocompromised, and that fact brings about hesitation for many, especially when the removal of masks started to increase. Because of this, Koenig says, “Until the virus is completely gone, I would like to see masks being more tightly enforced; otherwise, we’re going to have another situation like last summer.” The world played a bit of cat-and-mouse last summer when it was believed that the virus was dying down only to be met with the appearance of the recent variant Omicron. Since then, the variant has been a major source of turmoil for the entire world, including Hope’s community. 

The Campus Health team might have temporarily altered the mask requirements for campus buildings, but they continue to evaluate whether their decisions can persist as worthwhile or were too hasty. Hope College acts as a place of unified identity, but the masses underneath its orange and blue face are attempting to shuffle their way through mounds of masks with people on either side eager to gain supporters. Ottawa County remains the college’s number one source of guidance but only Campus Health can determine a set path for the community to wander down.

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