Last Friday, University of New Hampshire (UNH) President James Dean and Provost Wayne Jones announced in an email that masks were no longer required in indoor spaces on any of the three campuses.
“Throughout the pandemic we have based our policies on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Their mask guidance based on community levels puts our campuses’ counties at yellow or medium activity, which means masks are no longer required in most indoor settings,” Dean wrote.
Aside from health care facilities, public transportation and a couple other specific situations, this effectively ended any mask mandate on campus. However, the policy in practice has been less than black and white.
Students are still asked to carry a mask with them at all times on campus and expected to oblige when asked by a university community member to don a mask. The most-talked about aspect of this announcement is whether or not faculty members can enforce mask-wearing on campus.
Dean acknowledged the high level of vaccination on campus and said testing, airflow, and other Covid-19 precautions will continue. He encouraged students to “Be respectful,” “Stay home from work or class if you’re sick” and “Continue testing.”
“Since the early days of the pandemic we have followed the guidance of both the Centers for Disease Control and the NH Department of Health and Human Services as well as watched our own testing, vaccination and wastewater sampling trends. The decision was made based on all of these factors,” said University Spokeswoman Erika Mantz.
On Monday, Senior Vice Provost for Student Life Kenneth Holmes and Dean of Students Michael Blackman sent an email encouraging students to be considerate and respectful following these policy changes.
“For many of you, this announcement is a relief. Others may be feeling uncertain, uncomfortable, or anxious. Please know that many other community members have these feelings too,” Holmes wrote.
Holmes also encouraged people to monitor their symptoms and continue showing respect to others’ wishes.
UNH Medical Director of Health & Wellness Peter Degnan said that as states began to drop their own mask mandates, the university began internal conversations about continuing to meet public health needs in the case that New Hampshire changed their mask-wearing recommendations. Additionally, the CDC’s updated guidance originally listed Strafford County as “orange” risk level, so the university mask mandate remained in place. However, the county was shortly moved to “yellow” risk, at which point the CDC no longer advises the use of indoor mask requirements, he explained.
“Senior university leadership took into account many viewpoints, including public health and safety considerations, and input from students, faculty, staff and parents. Ultimately, the decision to end the indoor mask requirement was made,” said Degnan.
“Of course, there is some potential risk with this decision, but I would argue it’s a very low risk. Most of our infectivity has been traced to housing close contacts; most everyone has long given up mask use in their residences. Classrooms have never been identified as a high-risk environment, and I am [hopeful] that everyone will continue to take appropriate precautions to minimize risk of passing infection on to others,” he said.
Many are wondering if and when the indoor mask mandate would be reinstated on campus.
“The university will continue to follow CDC and NH DHHS guidance in conjunction with the other data noted above,” said Mantz.
There have been no changes to testing requirements and free masks continue to be available across campus. On Tuesday, UNH Chief of Police Paul Dean announced that there would be no testing requirement during spring break. New test-kit distribution will take place the first week back from break in the Whittemore Center.
“Being unkind or disrespectful to someone who decides to wear a mask has no place in our community,” Holmes wrote.