By Mallory Allen, Mara Allen & Lindsey Gloede
714 days. That’s how long it’s been since March 17, 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic turned life at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay completely upside down. Much to the chagrin of students and staff, things haven’t been quite the same ever since.
But now, nearly two years later, UWGB has taken a monumental step toward a ‘return to normalcy.’
On March 1, the university’s long-standing mandate requiring everyone to wear face coverings inside all campus buildings expired. Students, faculty, and staff now have the ability to decide on their own whether or not to mask up.
“Our decision weighed information received from the CDC, the advisement of the University of Wisconsin System, and other institutions, as well as our university data, which evidenced a substantial decrease in positive cases in our university community,” says Christopher Paquet, UWGB’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of Policy and Compliance. “Based on the expiration of our Chancellor’s directive on face coverings scheduled for February 28, 2022, it was decided that no extension would be entered.”
According to data from The New York Times, there were 1,348 new coronavirus infections reported in Brown County on January 24, the day UW-Green Bay’s spring semester began. Five weeks later, when the university’s mask mandate expired, a mere 28 new cases were reported. However, as of March 3, the COVID Data Tracker overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still classifies community transmission in Brown County as substantial, and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) ranks case activity level in Brown County as high on their COVID-19 Disease Activity Dashboard.
With these conflicting statistics and messages in mind, it’s no surprise that members of the UWGB community are similarly divided about the university’s decision to end its mask mandate.
Point of View #1: “I’m not fully comfortable yet”
A sizable portion of UWGB students and faculty feel apprehensive about the removal of the campus’s mask mandate and troubled by potential consequences that may arise as a result.
Junior Toni Brooks described her reaction to the news in one word: shock. “With COVID numbers still high, everyone is still at risk. I’m continuing to wear my mask to protect myself and those around me… It’s just better to be safe,” she said.
Bennett Schmitz, a sophomore and Resident Advisor (RA), feels the same way. “I want to keep wearing a mask. It’s just personal preference to help myself and other people stay healthy.” Schmitz shared that with face coverings no longer required, he’s “worried about it [COVID-19] spreading around campus more.”
Senior Aliza Dickinson said that she’s struggling to determine her plans for masking on campus: “A voice in my head says I should wear one because I haven’t contracted COVID since the pandemic started, and wearing masks out in public has become a safety blanket for me. Another voice tells me I shouldn’t have to wear one anymore because I’ve gotten all three shots.”
Some UWGB faculty members, such as Associate Professor Dr. Bryan Carr, are also grappling with their unease about the university’s decision, as well as uncertainty about how to proceed going forward. “Personally, I’m not fully comfortable yet… My hope is that we won’t see a spike [in cases], and my worries are for nothing, but I am still concerned because I do have folks who are immunocompromised in my life, and I know that a lot of my colleagues are too.”
Carr explained that he has chosen to remain maskless while lecturing in his classrooms but is wearing one in the halls and during interactions in his office. “I’m trying to adhere to it [the expired mandate] while also acknowledging the realities of the situation… We’re just going to have to see how it goes.”
Point of View #2: “I’m elated”
On the other hand, a great deal of UWGB students and staff are excited the mask mandate on campus is no longer in effect and feel no more at risk with it being lifted.
Sophomore Kaity Meyer said, “I’m not any more worried about contracting COVID on campus than I was before. I’ve had it twice, and I work in healthcare. I know that this decision wasn’t made lightly by school officials.”
Freshman Jenna Kohl says she was “definitely surprised” by the university’s decision not to extend the mandate but added, “I was ecstatic – so excited. I hated wearing masks. It’s much easier to understand my professors and interact with my peers. It feels like this is a return to normalcy, which so many of us have been looking forward to.”
Greg Bintz, a junior, is also enjoying life on campus without masks being required: “It’s nice to see people’s faces and smiles and be able to have genuine interactions again.” He acknowledges that this can be a polarizing topic, and members of the UWGB community may feel differently than he does. “In the end, whether people agree or disagree that the mandate should’ve been lifted, everyone should respect people’s choice to wear a face covering. Everyone is free to choose what’s best for them.”
Senior Lecturer Shauna Froelich stated, “I felt elated that I could finally take off my mask, breathe easier, and have students see my face. Even more, I was thrilled to see their faces.” Froelich – who hosted a mask-burning party at her house on the night the mandate expired and invited every student in her classes to come – agrees with Bintz’s sentiments. The best part about no longer having to wear masks? “Seeing smiles!”
UW-Green Bay officials realize that the issue of requiring face coverings on campus will likely continue to be a sensitive and controversial issue for the foreseeable future. But as Paquet said, “While there are still people who do not agree with the decision [to end the mask mandate] … we hope they understand the reason why this decision was made, and how the university will continue to review guidance and is ready to change direction should risks increase.”
Paquet added that UWGB administrators are committed to monitoring infection rates on campus, as well as locally, regionally, and nationally, to ensure informed decision-making. However, because the health and safety of the university community is a top priority, reinstating another mask mandate could be necessary should COVID-19 cases once again spike in an alarming manner.