We Need a Solution That Works for Faculty and Students, and a Mask Mandate Isn’t It
On Aug. 24, Yeshiva University’s Faculty Council passed a resolution by a 12-2 vote calling for YU to mandate masks in all “indoor interactions.” Just five days later, on Sunday, Aug. 29, all undergraduate students, faculty and staff received an email from the university in which a “temporary mask mandate for all academic and administrative buildings” was imposed. This was a sudden reversal of masking policies that were set forth months ago and constantly reinforced by members of the administration in emails to the student body and in conversations with student leaders. While the reasons for this sudden reversal were not outlined in the email, it can be assumed that the Faculty Council vote was a driving force behind the change — an assumption further supported by the fact the mandate does not apply to residence halls.
The Wilf Campus student body overwhelmingly opposes this mandate. Sy Syms School of Business Student Council President Akiva Poppers (co-author of this article), who is a business intelligence & marketing analytics (BIMA) major experienced in data-driven decision-making, conducted a straw poll in the hours after the mandate was announced on Sunday. He asked 164 male undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds whether they 1) supported the mandate and 2) would/did wear a mask if asked by their professor to do so. We recognize the flaws in this method of surveying students, but given the time constraints, we determined this to be the best method available. The results of this survey and the diversity of the students polled make us very comfortable in saying that the results are a representative sample of the larger Wilf Campus student body.
Of the 164 students, 27 supported the mandate, 132 opposed it and five either abstained or were indifferent. Excluding the abstentions and indifferent students, 83% of respondents opposed the mandate. 151 of the 164 students answered that they would wear a mask if asked by their professor to do so, while only nine said they would not, and four abstained. Excluding the abstentions, 94.4% of respondents would wear a mask if their professor asked them to do so. Of the 132 students who opposed the mandate, 119 would comply, nine would not and four abstained; excluding abstentions, 93% of students who oppose the mandate would wear a mask if their professor strongly asked them to do so.
It is clear that an overwhelming majority of the student body is opposed to being required to wear masks at present, yet at the same time, the same students are more than willing to respect faculty members who would feel more comfortable in a masked environment. For areas within the faculty, staff and administrators’ domains — classrooms and offices — said employees should have the authority to determine whether or not to require masks. Given the fact that even students polled who vehemently opposed the mandate overwhelmingly responded that they would wear masks if requested by their professors, this should not be an area of concern.
Unlike faculty and staff members, students spend a significant portion of their days outside of classrooms and offices. They learn in the batei midrash in the mornings and evenings, buy food at Nagel Bagels for lunch and chill in the Heights Lounge between classes. Many Wilf students find themselves leaving their dorms at 8 a.m. and returning only after 10 p.m.. Just as students in the residence and dining halls have autonomy regarding masking, they should have autonomy in all areas in which faculty are not required to spend extended periods of time. Any solution moving forward needs to recognize the student body’s autonomy, in addition to the faculty’s.
The atmosphere on campus this year is — or was, before the mandate was imposed — radically different from last year. It may be because this year we were supposed to actually see the smiles on others’ faces in class, or because we can sing on Shabbos (for now); not being required to wear masks brought with it a sense of progress. A mask mandate mentally reverts students back to a particularly difficult period of time. Studies show that mask requirements lead to a loss of autonomy and personal freedom. A loss of such a basic psychological need can lead to undesirable consequences, such as non-compliance, anger and derogation of the source of such a requirement. For us students, YU is our home, and to make it sustainable, it has to really feel like home.
This conversation would, of course, be very different if COVID-19 was a greater threat to Yeshiva University than it currently is. CDC guidance for Institutions of Higher Education where everyone is fully vaccinated states that such institutions can return to full capacity in-person learning, without requiring or recommending masking or physical distancing. (Roughly 99.7% of YU undergraduate students are vaccinated; according to Vice Provost Nissel, as of Aug. 21, only six students across both campuses received exemptions.) Obviously, if the CDC or NYC Department of Health required masks in all indoor settings, if an alarming number of students on campus tested positive for COVID-19, or if an overwhelming number of students supported wearing masks, it would make sense to issue a mask mandate. However, this blanket "temporary mask mandate" in academic and administrative buildings is, for the time being, unreasonable.
Based on all the above reasons, YU’s recently issued mask mandate is not fair to the student body. Rabbis, professors and all other staff members are fully entitled to their fears and concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19. As such, faculty should be able to require masks in their classrooms and offices, if that would make them feel comfortable. However, to force students to wear masks at any other time is unfair. We would be happy to work with the Faculty Council and administration on a proposal that meets the needs of both faculty authority and student autonomy. We pray that the situation does not continue to worsen, and hope that the administration comes to a resolution that promotes mutual respect.
Jonah Chill is president of the Yeshiva College Student Council, and Akiva Poppers is president of the Sy Syms School of Business Student Council.
Photo Caption: Wilf student leaders enjoying orientation
Photo Credit: Jonah Chill