With the spring semester knocking at the door Thursday, the University of Memphis announced they had already invited coronavirus’ newest variant to campus. Thursday morning saw the UofM release a COVID-19 update detailing the omicron variant’s spike in Shelby County, but went on to say masks would only be “strongly recommended.”
That’s right, in the midst of the most transmissible variant’s spike, administrators – likely under pressure from politicians – decided now would be the best time to relax health and safety protocols. A brief look at universities around the Memphis area shows other institutions are taking the latest chapter of the pandemic seriously, so why aren’t we?
The latest data from the Shelby County Health Department’s COVID tracking shows 1,957 people tested positive for the virus on January 10 – over 1,000 more cases in a day than the delta variant’s peak in August. But some would point to medical professionals’ assessment that the omicron variant is less deadly than previous variants. Sure, that may be so. But a virus that is 2.5 times as likely to be caught has the chance to send just as many people, if not more, to the hospital. And it already has.
The same Thursday the UofM announced it would not continue its mask mandate, Shelby County Health Department Director Michelle Taylor said 770 Memphians were in the hospital due to COVID-19 related complications. If you’ve been keeping track, that’s a record high.
So why put students at risk? The email announcement offered no rationale, but it included a link to a Tennessee law banning mask mandates. But portions of that law were struck down by a federal judge in December. So I have to ask once more, why put students at risk? Why put faculty and staff at risk?
In fairness to Provost Tom Nenon, whose office hosted a meeting with department chairs and directors prior to the mass email faculty and students received, faculty were told regulations on masks would be the same this semester as in the fall. However, the mass emails sent to faculty and students seemed to contradict that information. Faculty seemed confused as to where – or who – the change in messaging came from. In the days following that announcement, some faculty – like public relations professor Dr. Teri Del Rosso – questioned the decision.
“I think most students, faculty, and staff will rise to the occasion. We are a caring, community-driven campus, and I believe most of us will show up for each other and do what’s right,” Del Rosso said in an email Monday afternoon. “That said, this is another example of individuals having to take on the responsibility of institutions. An individual response to a public health crisis is only going to prolong the pandemic. Issuing science and evidence-backed mandates, which we have a precedent of doing, that protect and center the most vulnerable needs to happen at the top. There is something to be said about your employer doing everything possible, popular or not, to keep you and your colleagues and students as safe as possible.”
And she couldn’t be more right. Like many universities in March 2020, the UofM was on top of creating a safe and healthy environment for students. Sure, taking classes via Zoom wasn’t the most conducive for learning – but what is even less conducive is trying to learn while sick or, god forbid, trying to learn from a hospital bed. Last semester’s return to campus with a mask mandate seemed to be successful for the most part. There were few reported cases in the grand scheme, so why take away such a simple – yet effective – safeguard?
I’m sure many students will continue to wear masks on campus. In fact, I saw plenty as I made my way to our newsroom this morning. But it is too often forgotten, or neglected, that the mask-wearer isn’t protecting themselves, rather they are protecting others. The “You have your mask on, so I don’t have to” argument is simply pointless with so much research and data supporting the contrary.
The fact that so many students are still wearing masks to class should serve as a message to the university. The University of Memphis community wants to get through this pandemic. We don’t want to get our peers sick. And most of all we are tired of those unwilling to look out for the rest of us that keep us in the pandemic.
“Many of the faculty and staff are scared, nervous, and feel disrespected,” Del Rosso said. “I had a friend say that they are losing sleep over the decision because they have a chronic health condition and cannot afford to get sick or worse. Imagine having your employer make a decision that sparks someone worrying about what will happen to their family if they get COVID. These decisions don’t just have physical health ramifications, but also mental and emotional. People are not OK and we need support. Right now the language is not strong enough. We don’t need ‘strongly encouraged,’ we need, ‘We require this because these people matter.’”
We are just shy of living through two years of this pandemic and taking half-measures won’t get us through it. Honestly, strongly encouraging masks – which is the language the administration used – isn’t even a half-measure. It’s a set of empty words that allow the pandemic to continue to tread over us. For that, the administration needs to be held responsible for their inaction and lack of support for its faculty, staff and students.
Lucas Finton is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Helmsman and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.