By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

YU Faculty Council Calls for Mandatory Indoor Masking as Fall Semester Begins

In an emergency meeting on Tuesday night, Aug. 24, the Faculty Council — a representative body of YU’s faculty made to include them in forming university-wide, academic policies — passed a resolution by a 12-2 vote calling for YU to mandate masks in all “indoor interactions,” even for vaccinated individuals. 

The resolution, which acts as a recommendation to YU and is not binding, thanked the university for requiring vaccinations for all students and faculty to return to campus but indicated that this was not enough. “We request that in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines and following our own Cardozo [School of Law] and Ferkauf [Graduate School of Psychology], a mask mandate be set for all indoor interactions,” the resolution said, “providing our students and faculty the same protection that is provided for the vast majority of students and faculty in the NYC area.” 

It added that the council will “support any faculty member who requires students to wear masks in their classes.” 

Before the council meeting on Tuesday, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Chaim Nissel emailed students, faculty and staff about YU’s policy, signed by Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Selma Botman. “One of the remarkable things about being part of a values-based community, is that we are respectful and care about one another and the health and wellbeing of the entire community,” the email began. “We understand that the new Delta variant is of concern for everyone, and we are working closely with our Medical Director and following guidance from New York State and New York City in order to navigate the uncertainty that it presents.”

YU will not mandate masks, the email clarified, but it also indicated that students are expected to comply with faculty requests to wear masks in class, though they are not required to do so. It concluded that YU “will continue to evaluate this policy based on infection rates, as well as local and state guidance, and may revisit it as necessary.”

Three days later, on Friday, Aug. 27, Associate Dean of Students Joe Bednarsh wrote in an email that three students — one from Beren and two from Wilf— tested positive for COVID-19; students and professors in their classes were specifically notified. He also said that exposed individuals who are fully vaccinated and remain asymptomatic do not need to take any action.

The Faculty Council’s emergency meeting came after YU formally told professors of its current policy the day prior. On Monday night, Aug. 23, Botman and Dr. Robert van Amerongen, YU’s medical director, spoke with faculty about the university’s policy for the semester, who voiced their support for a complete masking requirement, according to professors who attended the meeting. Following this, faculty members reached out to Professors Abraham Ravid and David Cwitich — both chairs of the Faculty Council — who subsequently contacted the administration but did not hear back by Tuesday.

“There was no immediate response and time was running out,” Ravid told The Commentator. “At noon on Tuesday, with less than 24 hours left [until classes began], we decided to call a meeting of the council on short notice.”

As of July 27, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommended that fully vaccinated individuals should wear masks in public indoor settings with “substantial or high” transmission, which, according to its COVID Data Tracker, applies to the New York County area. Recently, the CDC noted that the vaccine is less effective against the more contagious Delta variant. 

Various New York City schools, including New York University and Columbia University, are mandating masks indoors for all students and staff this fall semester, regardless of vaccination status. While the City University of New York does not have a permanent mask mandate, it enacted a temporary one for all individuals on Aug. 2. Other institutions, such as Fordham University, are only requiring masks indoors for unvaccinated individuals; Fordham still recommends that vaccinated individuals wear masks indoors.

Many YU faculty members are scared about the university’s lack of a blanket mask mandate and the potential dangers they and their families face against the Delta variant.

Some professors, like Yeshiva College (YC) Psychology Professor Jenny Isaacs, fear returning to campus because of their vulnerable family members. “I have an unvaccinated small child and medically vulnerable parents,” she said.

One professor from the Stern College for Women (SCW) English Department, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her students’ identities, told The Commentator on Friday that one of her students recently tested positive. “I have arranged to be tested on Monday,” she said. “In the meantime, I have to figure out how to limit exposure to my son, who is autoimmune compromised.”

Another professor, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, questioned YU’s rationale. “It’s tricky,” they said, “as for some reason YU believes that vaccination is [enough] protection, even though Israel shows it’s clearly not so. Especially for educators who got their vaccine relatively early … No one has to choose between their livelihood and their (or [their] loved ones’) health.”

YC English Prof. David Lavinsky agreed. “Why not require a proven layer of protection, at a very small cost, that will ensure we can remain in-person for the rest of the term?” he asked. “Why not do everything we can for those of us with younger children or vulnerable family members, or faculty and students who might be immunocompromised?”

Prof. Rachel Mesch, chair of the YC English Department, felt similarly. “It's been an incredibly stressful way for faculty to go into the new semester — especially those who have unvaccinated children or grandchildren, are immunocompromised, or live with someone who is,” she explained. “It has also been extremely stressful for those who don't have the protections of tenure and are worried about asking students to do something that has — unfortunately — been politicized.”

As a result, many professors — such as those in the Chemistry and English Departments — are asking students to wear their masks in class, and according to some professors, students are complying. “The students in my classes have all been cooperative,” Mesch said. “I know of some faculty who have had some pushback, but by and large the students have been kind and respectful.”

Still, some professors are upset that YU is putting them in this position at all. “The absence of a mask mandate for indoor settings also means that the burden of creating safe campus spaces falls on individual faculty, students, and staff members,” Lavinsky commented.

From the side of students, some are against professors' efforts to mandate masks. “The university mandated a controversial vaccine in order to return to normal life, but with professors requiring masks in their classes it takes us two steps back,” a YC student said under the condition of anonymity. “If a professor or student is uncomfortable, then they have every right to put on a mask, but forcing other people to wear masks based on their discomfort is just not how the real world works.”

Others are trying to encourage others to make professors safe. Abigail Lerman (SSSB ‘22), the Sy Syms School of Business Student Council president for Beren Campus, told The Commentator, “​​In alignment with our Torah values, if a professor asks students to wear a mask, I would urge everyone to be a mensch and comply with their professor’s request, even if there is not an official mask mandate.”

This article incorrectly said that Columbia University will not be requiring indoor masking for vaccinated individuals. It was updated on Aug. 29 to correct that. This article was updated to include an Aug. 12 update by CUNY that it would be instituting a temporary mask mandate for all individuals. This article was updated on Aug. 31 to remove part of a quote that was mistakenly included. It also incorrectly said that Isaacs is chair of the Psychology Department, a position she has not held for four years

Photo Caption: The Faculty Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday night, Aug. 24.

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University