An email sent out to the student body by Nikki LaBarge on the behalf of Director of Campus Housing Stephen Matthews and Rehnuma Wahab, vice president of enrollment and student success Oct. 25, announced changes to the mask mandate in dormitories. It stated that as of 8 a.m. that day vaccinated students were no longer required to wear masks in their residence halls, unless attending large gatherings or events.
As neither guidelines from New York State nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) require the college to mask their students on-campus, all decisions regarding mask mandates fall on SUNY Plattsburgh’s COVID-19 Policy Group, which includes President Alexander Enyedi, Wahab, Matthews and others.
According to Matthews, the decision was made based on feedback from students and community advocates (CAs) as well as data on vaccination and positivity rates from the Student Health Center. Wahab added that another set of data the committee examines when establishing safety measures is the viral content level of the waste water both at the college and the wider community of Plattsburgh and Clinton County.
“It’s a very data-driven process,” Wahab said. “We’re not just sitting there throwing spaghetti and the wall and seeing, does it stick?”
Matthews proposed the idea of a revised mandate as an acknowledgement of students’ efforts. At the time of interview, both he and Wahab reported a positivity rate of zero among students living on-campus.
“You cannot have a better set of data than zero,” Wahab said.
According to Wahab, all feedback about the changes has been positive. Students are happy with the adjustment, primarily due to its convenience: they no longer need to wear a mask to use the bathroom or kitchenette, or throw out trash.
As CA of Moffitt Hall, Willie Corley said the revised mandate does not change the relationships he has with his own residents. While he mentioned that masks can limit communication by covering facial expressions, there were “ways around” the need to wear masks that allowed him to get to know his residents better. According to the revised mandate, gatherings and activities — the primary means of building relationships between CAs and residents — must still remain masked, regardless of the participants’ vaccination status.
With masking in residence halls left up to choice, some on-campus students, like Olivia Wolfe, a freshman nursing major living in Moffitt, continue wearing their masks in instances when they are in small spaces with people they don’t know, such as the elevator. She considers her dorm to be a safer space than classrooms.
“I think we should still be wearing [masks] in classrooms,” Wolfe said. “Because, you know, we don’t live with those people.”
Matthews refers to the on-campus housing as “a closed community,” and Wahab refers to it as “cohort living.”
Because students are occupying the same space and thereby, in the words of Wahab, “share the same set of germs,” the environment community living creates is safer than that of the wider community. It is a major reason why it was possible for the COVID Policy Group to consider revising the mask mandate in dorms: cohort living is comparable to living in a single household.
“We’re not seeing a big outbreak right now, and from my perspective, the students in our on-campus residence halls are doing the things that we need them to do,” Matthews said. “I thought this would be a nice gesture, and I really felt that our on-campus students deserved the opportunity to have the choice.”
Aside from allowing students a balance between freedom and safety, the revisions also encourage students to take responsibility for their own health.
“While we want to shepherd [students] through this, we also want to maintain that as our students become more aware of what works and what doesn’t, they will personally take the responsibility of keeping themselves and each one of us safe,” Wahab said. “We have that trust in our students. We’ve seen it just by the numbers.”
Matthews said that the campus has a 97% vaccination rate, “which is higher than anywhere you want to look.” However, he reminds students that the decisions made regarding the mask mandates on campus are situational, and may be subject to change at any time.
“If things change and COVID rears its ugly head up again, then we will pivot, just like we have for the last two years, and as the world has pivoted for the last two years,” he said.
There are currently concerns regarding the increased spread of COVID due to Halloween and the upcoming Thanksgiving break, but it is beyond the influence of Housing and Community Living.
“I trust our students, and I think that they’ll do the best things that they can to try to stay healthy,” Matthews said. “They don’t want to get sick, I know that, but things happen.”
Wahab said that in order to consider easing the mask mandate for classrooms, the wider community would have to see zero cases for four to five weeks. She estimated that for the next two years, masks would still be a safety measure the campus will “rely on,” as they are an important preventative measure for student safety even beyond COVID, extending to allergies, seasonal colds and other upper respiratory infections.