Students voice hesitancy, optimism with shift to mask-optional policy

By Daniel Okren, Staff Writer

Pitt’s relaxed mask rules went into effect Monday, after the University’s Healthcare Advisory Group announced the changes last week. The current COVID-19 rules now state that “all community members are welcome to wear face coverings based on their own comfort levels and needs.”

Anvay Raje, a sophomore neuroscience major, said he was not sure how to feel about the change and will make his choice on whether to unmask after gauging how things progress on campus.

“I feel like it’s going to be a transition,” Raje said. “I think it’ll depend on what people around me are doing.”

The University said in its announcement that the policy shift came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designated the communities Pitt occupies to be low to medium risk for COVID-19. Pitt will continue other virus mitigation efforts, including providing N95 masks at building entrances, weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated individuals and building access restrictions. University shuttles and buses, and labs where PPE are required, will continue to require masks.

Students showed cautious optimism about the ability to unmask after years of dealing with pandemic restrictions. Anthony Zygmunt, a sophomore microbiology major, said while he was excited for the change, he was still wary of the larger implications of the new policy.

“As much as I appreciate the freedom, I don’t know how I feel about it entirely,” Zygmunt said. “I trust public health officials, but the CDC has been prone to making things that might not have been great decisions for the sake of keeping the economy going.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at last week’s Senate Council meeting that the decision to shift to optional masking was a “step in moving forward for the University and community.”

In its update last Thursday, the University’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said the Pittsburgh campus had a seven-day averages of 3.3 positive student tests and 1.3 positive faculty and staff tests per day. The office has said that more than 90% of students, faculty and staff across all campuses are vaccinated with many having additionally received a booster dose.

Julieta Zabala, a sophomore nursing major, said knowing she and her peers are vaccinated makes her feel better about the masking change.

“I’m pretty comfortable with it, especially since the vaccine rates are high,” Zabala said.

With the unvaccinated and immunocompromised at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, the University released a message last week encouraging professors to be mindful of all students and “recognize and manage both the impacts on, and reactions of, our students and colleagues to the new posture.”

Zygmunt said some of his professors and classmates encouraged community members to remain masked in light of those who are at a higher risk of infection.

“Professors and a lot of people in classes are asking that people wear masks still because they have immunocompromised friends or relatives,” Zygmunt said.

Gaurav Badham, a sophomore neuroscience and anthropology major, is not optimistic that the change is going to proceed without consequence.

“Honestly, I feel like it’s going to backfire pretty quickly,” Badham said. “Everybody gets comfortable and then something happens and there’s a new spike in cases and then we go backwards.”

Despite this, Badham said he believes it is better that the University is doing what it can to move “forward.”

“I think it’s better because we’re still trending forward even though we fall back. It’s not as bad as it was with the initial lockdown,” Badham said “I’m more comfortable with it now than I was before.

While some rules are changing, others remain the same. Pitt still recommends that any individuals who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms get tested, regardless of vaccination status or known exposure.

“I’m staying home if I have any symptoms,” Zabala said. “I trust people around me to do the same.”

Zabala said while she is comfortable in the more open areas on campus, she does not think she is ready to attend classes without a mask.

“In places where people are spread out I feel comfortable because I’m vaccinated,” Zabala said. “I personally will probably be using it in classrooms where we’re a little more crowded.”

Casey Mulcahy, a sophomore nursing student, shares in the apprehension to unmask in crowded classrooms. Mulcahy said she would continue to wear a mask when students are “shoulder to shoulder.”

Mulcahy said she is using this week as a bellwether for how she is going to operate going forward.

“This will be like a trial week. If COVID cases go up a lot after this week then I’ll probably go back to masking indoors,” Mulcahy said. “But I’m pretty comfortable right now.”

Despite unknowns, Zabala said she believes that it is important that the University is following the CDC guidance in their efforts to get the campus community back to some semblance of normalcy.

“I think it’s important that we’re following the CDC guidelines,” Zabala said. “Eventually we’re going to have to move on.”