By Jennifer Ward*
After two years stuck in the pandemic, Purchase announced that the mask mandate is dropping, leaving students and faculty on campus with many mixed emotions.
As of March 21, the mask mandate on campus is lifted. This leaves the inside of buildings mask-optional for the first time in almost two years. Because New York State lifted the mandate, campus COVID cases are low and vaccine rates high, it was seen as the next logical step for getting back to normal.
“The college has done an excellent job in ensuring the health and safety of the campus through developing and implementing containment and mitigation measures to minimize the transmission of disease,” said Adrienne Belluscio, administrative director of health services.
Regardless of current case numbers, many students on campus still feel very unsure about going around campus maskless in the country's current state and with a new, highly transmissible COVID subvariant, BA.2, spreading throughout Europe and threatening another spike in the US.
“I get it, I never liked masks," said Chanelle McKenzie, a sophomore mathematics and computer science major. "But at the same time, just because you lift the mask mandate doesn’t mean it’s going to get rid of COVID."
While many students share the same sentiment, a fair amount feel like the lifting of the mask mandate was best for Purchase.
“It's been proven by science that the virus has died down in a sense. It’s probably going to keep going up and down, and be like the flu in a sense,” a junior, who wished to only be referred to as SB, said. “I know I’m being optimistic about this, but if we don’t continue living, the economy will just fall apart.”
At the height of the pandemic, many businesses and educational institutions took massive financial blows as strict quarantine restrictions caused the shutdown of in-person business and necessitated that many people work from home. As COVID-19 cases seem to decline and as the vaccine proves to be highly effective against the virus, many Americans are prepared to move on through any means necessary.
"I feel completely fine," said freshman literature major Alexa Zuckerman. "I do feel safe, plus everyone here is triple vaccinated I feel, this is probably the safest place to be."
But public health experts say the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet.
“WHO’s Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a familiar face to millions of us now, said on Thursday on the eve of the two-year anniversary of COVID being declared a pandemic that ‘although reported cases and deaths are declining globally, and several countries have lifted restrictions, the pandemic is far from over,’” reported CNBC on March 11.
For those who are immunocompromised, or who have weaker immune systems, the virus still poses a fatal threat. As people attempt to move on, nearly 7 million immunocompromised Americans seem to be left behind, the Associated Press reported in February. Many Americans are also concerned with the unknown lingering large-scale effects of long COVID (ongoing COVID-19 symptoms), which can cause chronic conditions such as fatigue and joint pain in those who have it.
Despite lifting the mask mandate, the school insists they are doing everything in their power to continue to protect students with compromised immune systems.
“The college plans to reach out to students and offer resources for those students who have a higher level of concern and/or risk for disease," said Belluscio. "It is vitally important that students with compromised immune systems be up to date with vaccination/booster."
For those with weakened immune systems who can get vaccinated, the vaccine is less effective than it is for people who are not immunocompromised. In January, the CDC recommended a fourth booster for those with weakened immune systems who may be at risk.
“Many [people with weakened immune systems] produce few to no antibodies in response to a vaccine or an infection, leaving them susceptible to the virus. When they do become infected, they may suffer prolonged illness, with death rates as high as 55 percent,” according to an article from the New York Times.
In response to concerns from the campus community, the college sent out an email on March 14.
“No one should be made to feel uncomfortable for wearing a mask," the email said. "Community members may encourage others to wear masks in their workspace or classroom without having to share their personal information."
It continued. “...Those who are concerned about their own level or risk can maintain social distance, avoid crowded areas, and speak with their physician about a plan for treatment should they get sick.”
A follow-up email sent on March 17 echoed these sentiments and urged students and employees who are concerned and may require accommodations to reach out to Health Services or the Office of Disability Resources. They’ve also recommended that all community members remain considerate of others, carry a mask, participate in COVID testing as needed, and get their boosters as soon as possible.
But this still has not eased the minds of campus community members who are high risk or have high risk loved ones who may be vulnerable if others don’t consider these safety precautions.
“If I get it, it can impact me a bit worse than someone else who can catch it,” said McKenzie. “The health services building isn’t doing anything to protect us. I can’t go to them. I can’t go to anyone else because there’s little help.”
Some campus community members are also calling for a focus on mental health services as the pandemic goes into another year.
"I think there should be more of an emphasis on mental health services for students at the college," said sociology professor Toivo Asheeke.
The aftermath of students’ mental health is something Asheeke believes needs to be more discussed. Although physical health is the first worry of people when COVID appears in conversation, Asheeke argues how this pandemic has affected students mentally should be discussed more.
“I think this pandemic has affected students’ mental health negatively. I think a lot of students had different changed living experiences,” said Asheeke.
"Students reported lower levels of psychological well-being during the pandemic than before, according to a survey by the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association," the New York Times reported in December. "On the plus side, they reported higher levels of resiliency."
Students have definitely been feeling this. “The school has been dramatic," said Zuckerman. "I appreciate where they’re coming from, they want to make sure the students are safe. It really impacts us worse than it is protecting us. They feel like a helicopter parent. It has been so mentally straining when it comes to the overbearingness of the school."
Ultimately, many in the campus community just want the conversation to be opened up and they want their voices heard and to be considered.
“For me it's about having that discussion in class, not so much what the individual wants," said Asheeke. "We have a collective good here. I would rather us look for things like that, then just go for punishments and rules. Like are we a community or not? Because if we aren’t a community, we can’t get to some of these solutions. Just punishing people, or getting mad at people isn’t going to change that. It actually just might make them double down even more.”
As for safety, that is something that many are conflicted on, and it will just take time to see how many students really begin to go maskless. “I’ll probably wear it a lot less just for a matter of convenience, also for a matter of I think it’s fine,” said Zuckerman.
“I will feel safe because I’m just assuming most people will be smart enough to not do stupid things, but again that’s just me giving people the benefit of the doubt and more credit than they deserve,” said SB. “I’m going to assume people will have common decency.”
McKenzie said, “Carry a mask and be safe because it’s not over. The storm may have settled but it’s not over.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated as of March 24 to reflect current financial information regarding the availability of mental health resources on Purchase College campus.