Starting Nov. 8, masks must be worn for any indoor academic activity, including lectures, teaching labs, and exams, according to an internal memo sent to UW employees and students. The university cited increases in local COVID-19 hospitalizations along with rising virus levels in wastewater as the reason behind the decision.
Some students viewed the change with indifference. Several described feeling like the COVID-19 pandemic was in the past, to the point where they stopped following current case numbers.
“I’m not all that worried about it,” said Sydney Mitchell, a third-year social development studies student. Mitchell said the reinstated mandate felt unnecessary, not having heard of the increasing cases, but also admitted to not following case numbers lately.
Kayla Scholten, a second-year biochemistry student, echoed Mitchell’s sentiments. Scholten said she didn’t mind the mandate, and though the suddenness of the announcement felt a little shocking, she felt that the university gave students a decent amount of time to acquire masks considering the free masks the SLC is currently giving out. “I kinda forgot [the pandemic] was still happening, but now that we have to wear masks and everything, I’ll probably keep an eye on [cases] a little more,” she said.
A poll conducted via Imprint’s Instagram page showed that while some students supported reinstating the mandate, pointing out the effectiveness of masking up and appreciating the university’s proactive approach, others felt that the announcement didn’t give students adequate time to prepare. Fifty-three per cent of respondents agreed with the return of the mandate, while 22 per cent disagreed.
The university emphasized the importance of acting soon to prevent the situation from deteriorating. “In combination with higher than usual levels of seasonal flu and other viruses, we needed to act now to minimize disruption to the end of term exam season and to protect the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Rebecca Elming, interim director of media relations and issue management.
Within the last 90 days, COVID-19 related hospitalizations in the Waterloo region peaked at 70 on Oct. 28. The seven-day moving number of cases is also experiencing an uptick compared to numbers in September, although the latest numbers, 7.3 cases per 100,000 people as of Nov. 2, have not yet surpassed the seven-day average of 11.4 cases per 100,000 people from Aug. 6.
Concerns regarding the strain on the provincial health system, particularly in the pediatric sector, have spurred calls for more stringent masking measures. However, Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, has not yet officially advised the province to bring back its mask mandate, instead recommending the public mask up in what has been called a “perfect storm” for the provincial healthcare system due to the combination of COVID-19 with the onset of flu season, on top of existing supply chain issues and a shortage of doctors.
In Imprint’s poll, students also questioned the lack of official statistics released by the university on the effectiveness of the mandate, as well as the effectiveness of only mandating masks during indoor academic activities.
“I think this is pointless,” said Ege Rer, a second-year math student. Rer stated that he would rather there be either no mandate, or a mandate applying to all of campus.
Thushanth Sivapalan, a second-year in accounting and financial management, stated that though the mandate might feel annoying, “We went all this time without masks, so everyone’s used to not wearing it I guess, but it’s good that they brought it back because everyone’s sick [after Halloween].”
Sivapalan agreed with the mandate applying in classes, as people grouped closer together there, but hoped that things would die down if those who were sick stayed at home and people adhered to the mandate, which provided “another layer of protection.”
Neil Patel, a first-year mechatronics engineering student from Alberta, didn’t mince his words.
“I hate it, but it’s necessary, so here we are,” he said. Patel voiced his dislike of wearing masks, and similarly stated that he had stopped keeping up with case numbers “a while ago.” Alberta lifted their mask mandate on June 14, after which Patel said he “stopped giving a shit.”
UW’s decision to bring back the mandate mid-term remains an outlier among other schools. Wilfrid Laurier University has maintained a mask mandate for indoor academic activities since the beginning of fall term, while Conestoga College has not added the requirement back since dropping it in July. Similarly, the University of Toronto has not reinstated its mask mandate, while the University of Western Ontario has made masking during indoors academic activity mandatory since the start of the term.
Patel seemed to sum up students’ general sentiments by saying, “Better rest of [the] term than rest of [the] year.”