By Kaitlyn McCormick
The past year and a half has been a consistent ebb and flow of everchanging COVID-19 safety precautions and restrictions, and as new variants of the novel coronavirus pop up in the global and national community, more states and businesses are reinforcing restrictions after catching only a slight glance of easing up. The decision to reimplement mask requirements regardless of vaccination status has received mixed reactions.
Governor Phil Murphy’s executive order regarding masks in New Jersey schools went into effect on Aug. 9. The order states that all faculty, students, staff members and visitors must wear a mask when indoors. This order pertains to both public and private institutions, including parochial schools, ranging all the way from preschools to secondary education buildings.
The mandate has understandably received mixed reactions, varying from relief, to disappointment, to backlash and, as expected, criticism. This decision to require masks for the 2021-2022 school year is smart, especially for students that are under the age of 12 and cannot yet get vaccinated to protect themselves from COVID-19 and its variants, specifically the new and highly transmittable delta variant. Garnering frustration, however, is the requirement for schools with vaccine-eligible students, specifically secondary education institutions like Rider University, where on-campus students are required to be fully vaccinated to participate in in-person classes and events.
Students are expected to be fully vaccinated to participate in on-campus living and in-person events unless already approved for a medical or religious exemption to the requirement. In an email sent to faculty, Rider’s COVID-19 Implementation Team reports that 96% of students partaking in living and learning on campus are vaccinated.
At least 150 students have been approved for vaccine exemption, though they will have to comply with weekly testing protocols beginning Sept.13. For faculty, however, union status prevents the vaccine from being mandatory, though individuals are strongly encouraged to get protected and protect others. According to a speech given by Rider University President Greg Dell’Omo at the school’s fall convocation, as of Sept. 2, 87% of staff and 86% of full-time faculty are vaccinated, with adjuncts still being closely monitored. Unvaccinated staff and faculty members will rightfully be required to participate in weekly testing as well.
Coinciding with mask implementations and vaccine requirements, Rider University will follow Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and recommendations for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 exposure case. This response relies on reaching out to individuals who are considered a close contact, which is characterized by having been within six feet of an infected person for 15 minutes regardless of mask status, coming into physical contact or contact with bodily fluids, or living with the infected individual. Vaccinated individuals will not have to quarantine like their unvaccinated counterparts, however, wearing a mask for 14 days after exposure and producing a negative test will be required.
To some, reinstating a mask mandate for communities with an overwhelming majority of vaccinated members may be frustrating or difficult to understand, especially in the wake of severe COVID-19 fatigue after 18 months of living through a pandemic.
The simple answer, however, is that masking up for extra precaution can’t hurt, especially in communities like college campuses that involve shared living spaces and high contact levels, as well as the ability for students to travel off campus where their interactions with others cannot be monitored. Wearing a mask also protects at-risk community members who may want to get the vaccine, but aren’t able to due to medical conditions, or people who may come in frequent contact with loved ones who are unvaccinated.
According to the CDC’s seven-day metrics, within the most recently documented period of Aug. 28 through Sept. 3, Mercer County is reported as having a high level of community transmission. The CDC recommends that in these areas of high transmission, community members wear a mask in public indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status.
Wearing masks when in close contact with others is an especially good idea when it comes to the information that is still being obtained on the delta variant, which the CDC reports to be two times as contagious as previous variants. Of course, the main focus and risk remain in individuals who are not vaccinated, which may make these requirements seem irrelevant or unnecessary in an environment where vaccination is mandatory, but breakthrough infections are still a possibility, and research regarding the COVID-19 pandemic as a whole continues to develop.
Wearing a mask is one of the easiest ways for individuals to protect themselves and others, and in the long run, it is only a minor inconvenience when the matter at hand is a question of public safety. Living in a pandemic is anything short of predictable, but doing everything possible for the health and safety of community members should remain a top priority for Rider.
This editorial expresses the unanimous opinion of The Rider News Editorial Board. This week’s editorial was written by Opinion Editor Kaitlyn McCormick
Originally printed in the 9/8/21 issue