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Baker University lifts mask mandate outside classrooms

Baker University officials throughout the pandemic have aligned their mask policies with those of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Douglas County regulations. The county ordered an emergency mask mandate on Jan. 7 after the spike of the Omicron variant and extended it to March 2 in early February. Students were required to wear masks in all indoor spaces and when social distancing cannot be maintained outside, regardless of vaccination status.

On March 2, the emergency mask mandate expired in Douglas County. The policy outlined that masks are no longer required in public spaces or on public transportation. Subsequently, Baker updated the campus’ mask policies to reflect the county’s decision.

Dr. Darcy Russell, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, sent out a campus-wide email on March 3, the day after the mandate’s expiration. The email stated that masks are only required in classrooms but that faculty are allowed to have mask-optional classrooms. The mask mandate on campus will officially be lifted on March 28.

Some professors, like Associate Professor of Marketing Nadia Novotorova, support the idea of a mask-optional policy.

“I want to see my students smiling and actively participating in discussions expressing their emotions,” Novotorova said. “Wearing marks is limiting our communications.”

Other faculty members are still hesitant about lifting the mask policy. Associate Professor of History Leonard Ortiz believes that mandatory mask policies in academic spaces on campus are crucial in maintaining the ability to conduct on-ground operations.

“The fact that we have hundreds of people living in close contact with each other on this campus and the positive rates have not exploded tells me that the mask mandate is one of several components that has kept us from having to teach completely from remote locations,” Ortiz said.

As of March 4 at 9 a.m., there are no students or faculty in isolation or quarantine. This has been the first time since Aug. 2020, according to Russell. Russell is on the university’s COVID-19 task force, a group of faculty members that meet regularly to monitor developments in outbreaks and discuss their plans for action. They work closely with a local physician to help them make these decisions.

“Using the tools that we have; vaccines, masks, isolation, and quarantine has really helped us get to this good place,” Russell said.

Once the mask mandate was lifted in Douglas county, the COVID-19 task force began the discussion of lifting the school’s policy. According to Russell, the reason for extending the mask mandate was due to spring break. She explained many students will be traveling out of state and to heavily populated areas where they are at a higher risk of getting COVID-19. This will give the university time to monitor COVID-19 cases when students return from break.

“We do lag behind them a bit because when they change, we have to meet and look at our statistics and make the best choice we can for the Baker Community,” Russell said.

On March 28, the mandate will be lifted and masks will no longer be required in the classroom. Students and faculty may still choose to wear face coverings if they wish to do so. Baker still has isolation and quarantine procedures in place if students or faculty test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to individuals who test positive. However, if COVID-19 cases start to rise in the area and on school grounds, the mask mandate will be reconsidered.

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