On March 7, when Harvard College announced that it would suspend its indoor mask mandate a week later, Melissa M. Shang ’25 feared for her life. Shang was born with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited disorder that impacts her lung function. If she contracts Covid-19, her case will likely be severe and potentially fatal.
For Shang and other immunocompromised students, campus policies have much higher stakes than just comfort. “The most frustrating part that I’ve had conversations about with people who don’t want the mask mandate has just been me being like, ‘I have this condition. I would basically die if I got Covid,’” Shang says. “And then people are like, ‘Yeah, but that’s your issue, not ours.’”
In January, a Harvard University Health Services Covid guidance update stated: “By continuing to mask, distance, test regularly, and minimize close contact, we can maintain a safe academic, research, and work environment for everyone.” Less than two months later, the University’s messaging changed. Masking is now a personal decision, and while vulnerable individuals “should continue to wear a mask,” others might choose to do so only if they are worried about their own well-being or that of someone close to them.
In the March 7 email, administrators cited declining case rates and the concurrent relaxation of Covid restrictions at state and local levels in their decision to suspend the mask mandate. “There have been very few hospitalizations and no Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admissions this year,” the email said, adding that the risks posed by Covid “can be managed effectively with less intrusive measures than before.”
Harvard’s Covid policies are informed by the University Coronavirus Advisory Group, which comprises public health and medical experts. In response to a request for comment, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton referred to several previous Covid guidance updates, as well as a Harvard Gazette interview with two members of the UCAG, following the University’s April 25 announcement that it would transition to optional Covid testing over the next few weeks.
In the Gazette interview, Harvard Medical School professor Michael Klompas cites successful vaccine mandates and the “large number of community members” who have recovered from Covid as factors in the Advisory Group's decision to recommend optional testing.
“The things that we did during the early stages of the pandemic to save lives, that made perfect sense at the time when there was a much higher threat of hospitalization and death, turned out to be onerous and obstructive to community life, to education, to research, to the social mission of the University,” Klompas says.
Newton did not directly respond to a question about whether disabled or immunocompromised people are represented in or consulted by the UCAG.
This rhetorical shift — along with the conversations Shang described and the mantra that everyone is going to get Covid eventually — symptomize the transformation of pandemic safety from a communal question to an individual one, leaving the responsibility to fall on immunocompromised students. Of course, studies consistently show that wearing a mask protects others from Covid; and some people cannot afford to get Covid eventually, because they will die.
More than 7 million Americans are on immunosuppressive drugs to treat diseases like cancer, and countless more have underlying conditions that weaken their immune system or make vaccines ineffective. This means that Covid safety is also an issue of disability justice. It complicates the picture of classrooms in a newly unmasked world, particularly since it may not be possible to tell that someone is immunocompromised just by looking at them, and students who are at high risk may not be willing to share that information.
One immunocompromised student, who requested that he not be named, keeps his condition private and managed it on his own for years, saying that his condition is not “immediately apparent” to people. Now, he is at a standstill with Covid making it even more unmanageable to deal with on his own.
“If this were a thing where you could entirely protect yourself individually, that’s fine,” he says. “But it’s a transmittable virus. It’s not like that.” He describes having to maintain a limited circle of small social groups: “It’s fine like that. That is what it is.”
Under the new policies, instructors can choose whether to require masking in their classrooms. Professor Bethany A. Burum says she has asked her psychology seminar to continue wearing masks, since she is pregnant. Students have been “gracious” about honoring the request, she says.
By contrast, in professor Jennifer L. Hochschild’s class, General Education 1052: “Race in a Polarized America,” masking is optional. For the first few weeks, she says, most students continued to wear masks, but many of them have stopped. Hochschild does not wear a mask when she lectures, since she finds it harder to speak effectively, and she believes some students have moved farther back in the classroom as a result. She has given students multiple channels to express discomfort with the policy, including anonymously through a teaching fellow. No one yet has done so.
Shang says that regardless of the existence of a mask mandate, but particularly in its absence, Harvard needs to offer some kind of virtual option for students who do not feel safe attending class in person, because they are more vulnerable to Covid or need accommodations for a different reason. This kind of adaptability should not be hard to come by, she says; Harvard was almost entirely virtual for about a year and a half. “Once the pandemic started, virtual options suddenly became the norm,” Shang says, but now, “disabled students and people with disabilities who have jobs are once again struggling to get the flexibility and the virtual options that we need.”
Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers president Koby D. Ljunggren, a Ph.D. student, says the flexibility they were given during this time to work or attend classes from home was vital. “I finally felt like I had access to education, and I didn’t have to miss out on education because I experienced life a bit differently,” they say.
But as Harvard has tried to return to normal, in the newfound absence of a campus wide policy requiring remote classes, such options vary. Students in Burum’s seminar have joined via Zoom if they are sick, which works for occasional absences but inhibits participation: “I don’t have a special microphone setup or anything,” she says. “It’s literally just my computer.” While recordings of Hochschild’s lectures are made available to students taking the course concurrently through the Harvard Extension School, HES policy prevents her from allowing her own students blanket access to the recordings. Students who miss a class may request individual recordings through the Extension School. During past Covid waves, Hochschild says, this “bureaucratic” system was overwhelmed by the sheer number of absences, so she asked her head Teaching Fellow to start emailing the videos directly to students.
Generally, students with accessibility needs register through the Accessible Education Office, which works with them to provide accommodations. In response to an interview request, the AEO forwarded a written response from Harvard spokesperson Alixandra A. Nozzolillo. “While it is the case that Harvard College transitioned, temporarily, to remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, that transition took place across the entire curriculum for all students,” Nozzolillo wrote. “This meant that pedagogy was tailored to remote instruction for all participants, whereas now it is again tailored to in-person learning.”
Some disabled students have criticized the AEO as sluggish or unhelpful. “When you have a disability and you ask for accommodations,” Ljunggren says, the AEO can often “outright” deny requests.
“There are occasions where folks will ask for accommodations, and they’ll say, ‘That’s too extreme, maybe you should take a leave of absence,’” they say.
Shang, who is the co-president of the Harvard Undergraduate Disability Justice Club, describes having asked a professor to provide a virtual class option and being told she should go through the AEO. When she asked the AEO, she says, she was told virtual options were up to the discretion of professors. “You’re just constantly passing me to other people who also can’t do anything,” she says. “What do you expect me to do?”
Nozzolillo wrote that the College cannot comment on specific requests for accommodations.
In response to the lifting of the mask mandate, six Harvard organizations, including the Disability Justice Club and HGSU-UAW, and more than 170 students signed onto an open letter arguing for the mandate to be reinstated within classrooms. It was distributed to multiple student organizations and student house mailing lists.
Tessa Green, a biophysics Ph.D. student who co-wrote the letter, expresses frustration over the mask mandate being lifted, saying it seemed the decision was made based on the desires of a “pool of low-risk individuals” rather than prioritizing an “open access to campus for anyone who wants to be there,” leaving campus less safe for individuals who are high risk or disabled.
Ljunggren says the decision was made without consulting “folks on the ground,” but rather by “stakeholders at the top of the university”; the announcement of the end of the mandate came during a large spike in positive Covid cases among undergraduates.
Though several student organizations signed the letter, many others, including advocacy groups, did not. .
For Shang, what she sees as the disregard for the lives of disabled and high-risk peers has not gone unnoticed. “You have to be concerned about this,” she says. “Because if you aren't then I and my friends and other at-risk people on campus are being left to possibly die.”
With the relaxed mask mandate, other pandemic policies have been changed as well. In March, Harvard announced it would end its Coronavirus Workplace Policies, limiting the number of days employees can use to care for dependent family members who are ill or need to isolate. Harvard also no longer provides additional time off benefits that can be used to care for immediate family members whose care or school schedules are affected by Covid. Family medical leave and paid sick time remain.
Ljunggren says that they are not asking or expecting people to wear masks indefinitely. But Harvard’s accomodations — flexible work, remote classes — should be treated as permanent steps toward accessibility, rather than as temporary concessions to a pandemic, they say. “From the union angle, a lot of these positive changes that have taken place in our workplace are more accommodating,” they say. “We don’t want to see this go away. We should reckon with the old normal.”
— Magazine writer Benjy Wall-Feng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Benjy on Twitter @wallfeng.