Students studying (with masks)

“It seemed like things were just starting to go back to normal, and now, it feels like we’re back to where we started.”

Senior Jenna Demeter echoed the sentiments of many UT students who feel frustrated and disappointed with the expansion of UT’s mask mandate.

At the beginning of this semester, UT policy required that masks be worn in all classrooms, with optional masking in other spaces. This Monday, UT expanded its mask mandate to include all indoor spaces, with the exception of private offices and dorm rooms.

According to the director of UT’s Student Health Center, Dr. Spencer Gregg, the key motivator for this decision is the rising number of COVID-19 Delta variant cases on campus.

UT leaders made the decision to protect the health and safety of faculty, staff and students by asking them to wear masks in public spaces,” Gregg said.

Despite the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant, CDC reports continue to assert that masks are effective at reducing spread. Not only do masks reduce the risk of spreading the virus to other people, it also helps protect the wearer from contracting the virus.

The pandemic has upended the academic trajectories and the lives of every student. No one wants a repeat of last year, which is why many students strongly support the expansion of UT’s mask mandate.

Because the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill prohibiting any state agency from mandating that a person receive the COVID-19 vaccine, an increased mask mandate is seen as the only viable requirement that could prevent classes from needing to return to a virtual format.

“Before Delta, it was up to personal preference, especially if you’re vaccinated," said Gregory Croisdale on the subject of masking. “But with the resilience that the virus has shown in the face of the vaccine… Everything that we can do to fight the disease needs to happen.”

Croisdale’s sentiment is reflected in a poll conducted by The Daily Beacon, which suggests that 80% of UT students strongly support the expanded mask mandate on campus.

Many who support the mask mandate express anger toward peers who refuse to mask up, while those who oppose the mandate view this requirement as a violation of personal freedom.

Although vitriol can be heard on both sides of this debate, all students appear to share the same goal: keep campus open.

Vaccination continues to be the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic, but with rising cases of the Delta variant, the CDC is recommending that schools employ universal masking as a strategy to prevent classes from being forced back online.

However, in order for the mask mandate to be effective, it necessitates participation from more than just the 80% of students who strongly support the mandate.

Although the mandate feels like an unwelcome moment of déjà vu, there’s reason to hope that this academic year will not be a repeat of 2020: if paired with increased vaccination rates on campus, it’s possible for the university to remain open. The outcome largely rests in the hands of UT students, who make up the majority population on campus.

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