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With Harvard’s New Mask-Optional Policy, Many Faculty Adopt a Wait-and-See Approach to Unmasking in Class

Harvard University lifted its masking requirement for indoor spaces earlier this month.
Harvard University lifted its masking requirement for indoor spaces earlier this month. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Ariel H. Kim and Meimei Xu, Crimson Staff Writers

Following a spike in Covid-19 cases earlier this month, many Harvard instructors have opted to continue requiring masks in classrooms, even after the University lifted its mask mandate for most indoor spaces last week.

As of March 14, instructors may choose whether or not to require students to mask in their classrooms. Many professors are mandating masks for the first week after spring break to wait out a potential spike. Some have taken a stricter approach, requiring masks for the rest of the semester, while others have gone fully mask-optional.

Students in classes larger than 250 people are still required to wear masks, but instructors may teach unmasked in classes of all sizes.

Harvard saw a surge of Covid-19 cases among undergraduates just before it lifted its mask requirement this month, with 765 undergraduates testing positive in the four weeks prior to spring break, according to Harvard’s Covid-19 testing dashboard.

More than 75 Harvard affiliates, mostly graduate students and staff, signed onto a petition created this month calling on Harvard to reinstate its mask mandate. The open letter said the current mask-optional policy “puts the onus of protection on those who are most vulnerable.”

In an email announcing the changes to masking policies, Harvard administrators wrote the school may return to mandating indoor masking if health risks increase.

“The University and its advisers will continue to monitor indicators of pandemic activity regionally and within our community, placing particular weight on severity of illness and hospitalization rates,” administrators wrote on March 7.

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences recommended that instructors consult Harvard’s testing dashboard to assess the risks that teaching a large number of students would pose as they consider their individual classroom protocol.

Students in Life Sciences 1b: “An Integrated Introduction to the Life Sciences: Genetics, Genomics, and Evolution,” must wear masks during lecture due to the course's size, which exceeds 250 students.

For lab sections this week, instructors asked students to wear masks since many traveled over spring break, according to Biology professor Hopi E. Hoekstra, an instructor for the course.

Hoekstra wrote in an email that instructors will reassess at the end of this week and may allow individual teaching staff to decide whether to continue the mask mandate for lab sections.

Philosophy lecturer Seth Robertson also asked his students to keep their masks on this week but said he will reevaluate based on case counts.

Even though unmasking helps instructors to gauge their students’ reactions, Robertson said “the health and safety of the students has to come first.”

Some faculty chose to mandate masks indefinitely. Adam R. Singerman ’09, a lecturer in Linguistics, said he decided to continue requiring masks for Linguistics 117R: “Linguistic Field Methods,” a class with under 15 students.

“I told the class I’d like everyone to continue to mask after break because the room is small and we’re in there for two hours, and I don’t want anyone to feel unsafe,” he said. “It’s not the kind of class you can Zoom in for — you have to be there and participate in person.”

Other faculty decided to go mask-optional immediately upon returning from spring break.

Government and African and African American Studies professor Jennifer L. Hochschild said she will allow students and teaching fellows to decide whether to wear a mask.

“I just find it a lot easier to teach just because I’m talking a lot, but it isn’t anything about whether I’m taking any strong stance,” she said. “If any of my students suggested, or anybody else suggested, that they would prefer that I wear a mask, I would say, ‘sure.’”

Sarah J. Hummel, a visiting assistant professor in Government, said the option to unmask leaves instructors with a difficult decision, but they aim to promote the “best interest of our students.”

“It’s really hard for professors to make the decision to keep our students masked knowing that a lot of students won’t like that, but also to unmask them knowing that that might increase risks,” she said. “It’s a complicated issue.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Meimei Xu can be reached at meimei.xu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeimeiXu7.

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