Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass students react to the mask mandate lift and two-year mark of the pandemic 

Students reflect on when they were sent home in March 2020 and the recently lifted campus mask mandate
Raksha Pokharel

On March 11, 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. Now that it has been over two years since the inception of the pandemic, things look a little different.

Since the coronavirus first hit the United States, students have endured years of quarantining and mask-wearing. At the University of Massachusetts, students have been heavily impacted by these global health precautions. Just weeks before the spring semester, students were notified about the University suggesting double-masking and KN95-wearing. Then, in an email to the campus community on March 8, the University notified students that “effective Wednesday, March 9, at 7 a.m., the campus will lift its indoor mask requirement.”

UMass was behind other Universities and entities in lifting its mandate; the statewide mask lift for K-12 schools was issued on Feb. 28 by Gov. Charlie Baker. UMass Lowell followed Baker’s issue, and by March 11, both the towns of Amherst and Northampton had lifted theirs for the most part.

The town of Hadley lifted its indoor mask mandate in public spaces on March 1. The town’s public and private elementary and secondary schools, however, required masks until March 7.

For those not yet fully vaccinated — which equates to a full vaccine sequence and booster shot — the mask mandate is still in effect at UMass. In certain settings, such as on the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority and in health care facilities, all individuals no matter their vaccine status are required to wear face coverings.

“More people are okay with not having to wear them,” Pablo Quiceno, a junior communication and journalism student and PVTA employee said. “A lot of people here are friends, they see each other all the time. But people are nervous about taking it off while here at work.”

Quiceno said that he’s “a bit more lenient, but some people [who work for the PVTA] are stricter.”

When it comes to the PVTA, there are a few obstacles, such as passengers that often don’t take the bus and might forget to put on a mask.

“The Route 33 to Puffers Pond I know has a lot of non-students, so they might be more susceptible to not knowing,” Quiceno said. “Or, there are freshmen who might not know since they haven’t taken the buses before.”

Quiceno thinks that summer would be the right time to remove the PVTA mask mandate, considering its reduced service over that season.

Transferring in from UMass Dartmouth in the spring of 2020, Quiceno started working for UMass transit in January 2021.

“By that point I was used to wearing masks, but now looking back, it’s kind of crazy how I would wear a mask more than I didn’t on most days,” Quiceno recalled. “When it comes to it being two years now with masks, that’s obviously been interesting to think about as well, but I’m glad we are getting to the point where masks aren’t a daily fixture of our lives anymore like it used to be.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, it is recommended that “people who are unvaccinated, or who have certain health conditions or compromised immune systems, or live with people who are at higher risk, should wear masks while sharing indoor spaces with other people outside their homes.”

That suggestion by the Department of Health relates to University faculty—another group heavily impacted by the past two years. The email from UMass on March 8 called specific attention to the inability of individual faculty, professors and departments to “enforce regulations” to the lifted mandate.

Some students took to Reddit, a social media platform, expressing frustration over this.

“Classes Cancelled cause of Masks?!??” a comment in the “r/umass” thread reads.
Photo credit: u/wutheringheights5 / Reddit

As part of the health care facility staff on campus, staff workers at University Health Services and the Public Health Promotion Center are also required to still wear masks.

Senior public health major Rylee Reed, who works at the Public Health Promotion Center,  thinks the University’s decision to lift the mask mandate was “abrupt.” Reed works at the isolation and quarantine unit at PHPC.

“I found out [about the lifted mandate] at the same time as all the students, which felt odd since I work in Thatcher, closely related to the PHPC. I also heard that professors were not consulted in this decision, so many of them are upset,” Reed said.

“Even though it is following the surrounding towns’ mandates, I think it would’ve been smart to see how cases were after students returned from spring break,” Reed continued.

Reed, whose employment contract with PHPC ends in May, said it seems as though isolation and other COVID-10 restrictions will be discontinued after this spring semester. Reed described the period of two years of COVID-19 as feeling “surreal that it seems to be coming to an end.”

“I do think most of the precautions were necessary being sent home and all, but it is nice to see life getting back to normal,” Reed added.

Despite individual departments and faculty not being able to instate their own rules, the University “encourages people to continue wearing masks if they want to.

Ning Zhang, assistant professor of health policy and management, was surprised with the trend among students, but not about the timing of the decision.

“Many students I have heard are choosing to still wear a mask,” Zhang said, adding that there should be different regulations for different departments.

“Arnold House, the public health building on campus, has bad ventilation and is an older building,”  Zhang explained. “There has got to be some variations. For professors who are chronically ill, masks should continue to be required, but as expected there can be tension between faculty and students.”

Junior public health student Rebecca Hunt explained  that she is continuing to wear a mask. “I’m absolutely wearing my KF94s and KN95s. A couple of my family members are immunocompromised, and I don’t want to ever bring anything to them,” she said.

Hunt also noted that it was “irresponsible” for UMass to lift the mandate right before spring break and after “Blarney” weekend.

As of April 4, Amherst College had updated their mask requirements. “Amherst remains a mask-friendly community and all members of the community are expected to have a KN95 mask with them at all times,” the website reads.

Another member of the Five-College Consortium, Smith College, also lifted its mandate beginning April 4. According to the CDC, Hampshire County is now considered a low COVID-19-community-level county.

Sarah Bailan, a junior English and Spanish double major, works at the Recreation Center as a fitness instructor where she teaches barre classes.

“I’m so relieved. That was such a hard part of my job to do it with the mic, with the mask on. I feel I can connect so much better with participants and if I can see their faces, I can remember them so much better,” Bailan said.

Bailan does, however, experience different feelings when it comes to wearing a mask as a student versus as a fitness instructor.

“As a general student, I think it’s super random that they did this right now. Why right after Blarney? Why right before break?” Bailan questioned.

The weekend of March 5, the annual student-led Blarney celebration took place. Many UMass students across Amherst attended these festivities celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

“I’m okay health-wise, but in the classes that I’ve been to, no one has been wearing masks,” Bailan added. “I think that people are anxious about it, and that it really didn’t need to happen right now. I might feel weird if everyone is wearing a mask and I’m not.”

Reflecting on the pandemic over the last two years, Bailan said that there’s a big difference between experiencing the pandemic at 18 and now, at 20.

“I’ve changed a lot, and I feel like everyone and everything has changed a lot since then. The time before March 2020 feels very distant, but at the same time, this time of year reminds me of coming home, going on walks with my mom a lot, and taking classes at home virtually,”  Bailan added.

Another student, Clare Sheedy, is a senior public health and women’s gender and sexuality studies double major. Sheedy expressed similar confusion as to why the University chose the week before spring break to lift the mask mandate.

“We went from the University mandating KN95, N95 or double masking, to no masks? It’s no secret there was just one of the biggest parties of the semester this past weekend, where people came from other places,” Sheedy explained.

“It’s also very weird that we actually have spring break this year. It feels strange that as a first semester senior this is my first time actually off,” Sheedy said in relation to the two-year mark of the pandemic.

While students such as Bailan and Sheedy were shocked about the timing of the decision, Zhang felt differently.

“It wasn’t a surprise to me, since Governor Baker had announced two weeks before that K-12 was done,” she said. “But I wonder if it’s a little bit too quick. UMass is a large community, not like small schools. We know that the virus is still there, and that it will coexist with us for many years.”

On Thursday, March 10, the Amherst Board of Health held a public meeting where Public Health Director Jennifer Brown cited that the COVID-19 cases were the “lowest they have been since late December.” She also noted that there are “lots of students still wearing masks.”

Amherst officially lifted their indoor mask mandate that same day.


Raksha Pokharel

Olivia Capriotti can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @CapriottiOlivia.


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