Professors are allowed to teach unmasked. They shouldn’t be

UMass’s inconsistency poses a threat to the community

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Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Catherine Hurley, Assistant Arts Editor

Students at the University of Massachusetts, who are required to wear a face covering during class, may be surprised to find out their professors are not held to the same standard.

In an August 20 message to faculty, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs John McCarthy wrote, “A vaccinated instructor can choose to go unmasked while teaching if they can maintain at least six feet of distance from where students are sitting in the classroom.  An instructor who chooses not to wear a mask in the classroom should explain why they are doing so, but that students should remain masked.”

McCarthy goes on to say, “We want to model good behavior for students while the face covering mandate is in place.”

Information about the exemption was not provided in an email to students before the start of the semester and cannot be found in the University’s updated indoor mask requirement notice or its subsequent FAQ page.

Allowing professors to unmask while teaching indoors, even with six feet of distance, is a hypocritical policy that neglects Covid-19 safety measures and prioritizes the needs of faculty over students and other employees.

Most UMass buildings and classrooms are unlocked during the school day, and there is no way to stop members of the public from entering. The Town of Amherst indoor mask mandate requires face coverings to be worn in all indoor public spaces, “whether individuals are vaccinated or not and no matter what the distances are between one person and others.” Allowing professors to teach without a mask violates this mandate.

UMass students, 97.1 percent of whom are vaccinated, are required to wear a mask in all public indoor settings, including the recreation center, dining halls and residence hall common areas. There is no policy in place allowing students to unmask in empty hallways, common rooms or classrooms, and students speaking or lecturing to a group of peers must remain masked.

And that’s the way it should be. Requiring masks indoors, especially at the beginning of the semester, is essential to reducing the spread of breakthrough Covid-19 cases and ensuring classes remain in-person this year.

UMass reported a total of 149 Covid-19 cases during the first week of classes, including three faculty and staff members, but it is impossible to know the full extent of the virus’s spread without mandatory testing.

Within the mask exemption poses a dilemma for professors. The first, whether to risk the health of themselves and their students by unmasking, and the second, whether their decision poses a threat to their teaching status. Professors with tenure, whose jobs are not directly threatened by complaints or negative student evaluations, have more freedom to remove their mask without consequence. An untenured professor, however, is bound to consider student backlash in their decision. When it comes to questions of health and safety, one’s status in the workplace should never present itself as a variable.

Meanwhile, custodial and maintenance workers, who exert themselves indoors at a distance from others, are not allowed to remove their mask. UMass’s decision to grant personal choice to an elite few highlights a divide between faculty members and lower paid, less protected employees.

I understand the temptation for professors to go without their mask. It’s difficult to speak in front of a large group while wearing one. The risk of one, most likely vaccinated, socially distanced person transmitting Covid-19 is minimal. However, I urge professors to hold themselves to the same standard as the rest of the UMass community.

Lecturing without a mask is not an acceptable model of good behavior in the classroom. If UMass wants students and staff members to continue respecting the indoor mask mandate, the least it can do is require that professors do the same.

Catherine Hurley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @cath_hurley.