‘Frustrating’: Mask mandate extension divides community

photo of an empty classroom
Antonio Martin/Senior Staff
The one-week extension to the UC Berkeley mask mandate is proving to be divisive among the campus population.

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For campus freshman Jayanth Karuturi, one word comes to mind when describing UC Berkeley’s decision to extend its indoor mask mandate through March 6: “frustrating.”

“We’ve been in this for a few years. It’s time to move on,” Karuturi said. “I just didn’t understand why they decided, against the advice of health experts who are explicitly saying we don’t need mandates anymore, to continue extending it.”

Karuturi isn’t alone in his frustration. Some, such as campus lecturer Nicholas Weaver, have questioned the efficacy of UC Berkeley’s mask mandate.

Weaver has embraced a “you only live once” attitude to masking and criticized the mandate for its allowance of “crappy” cloth masks.

“If the University and the press explained things properly they wouldn’t have had to whipsaw in this case,” Weaver said in an email. “I’d be safer wearing an N95 in a COVID ward than a ‘surgical’ … mask in a crowded classroom full of students under the current mandate.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, N95 masks are better than surgical masks, but all masks provide some level of protection from COVID-19.

The decision to end UC Berkeley’s mask mandate for fully vaccinated persons followed similar decisions statewide and throughout the Bay Area. But many want the mandate to stay in place — and for them, a one-week extension isn’t enough time.

A petition started by Gender and Women’s Studies department chair Laura Nelson and her colleagues advocates extending the mask mandate into the “foreseeable future.” It has garnered 1191 signatures as of press time, with 700 coming after the announcement of the extension.

“Masking is a small sacrifice with significant health payoffs,” Nelson said in an email. “I’m glad the campus has allowed more time to consider all the options.”

The petition cites learning disruptions, poor classroom air quality and threats to vulnerable community members as arguments for continuing the mandate. Some public health advisors recommend masking until cases reach 10 per 100,000 residents, Nelson added.

University Council-American Federation of Teachers Local 1474 co-chair Crystal Cohen noted union lecturers supported the petition. She added she was “encouraged” by the extension, but still harbored concerns that only 70% of students and 80% of faculty had received the booster.

“We are all, as a community, so exhausted with anxiety and uncertainty,” said Cohen’s fellow co-chair I-Wei Wang, who represents union librarians, in an email. “A week’s reprieve, especially when the change comes so quickly on the heels of the initial announcement, does not do much to enhance our campus’s sense of stability.”

United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents academic student employees, also has general support for the petition among its members, according to Berkeley chapter recording secretary Samuel Chan. The union wants departments and student instructors to have a choice between mandatory masking and remote instruction, Chan added.

“It is sensible for the University to extend its mask mandate,” Chan said in an email. “It does not seem that they are really listening to the feedback they are getting from students and faculty members.”

Campus, stuck between two opposing sides, justified both the decision to end the mask mandate and the decision to extend it. The mask mandate extension came in response to community concerns and to give vulnerable people more time to request accommodations, according to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.

In response to concerns that lifting the mask mandate would harm vulnerable community members, Gilmore noted 33 of 35 students who requested remote learning in fall 2021 received the accommodation, and that campus has relaxed the staff and faculty remote work policy. Nelson contended some vulnerable communities were excluded from these processes.

Gilmore denied transmission in classrooms was a major issue, adding that contact tracing showed transmission occurred almost entirely in households and during unmasked, social eating. ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert, who wants to maintain the mandate until at least after spring break, challenged the implications of this information.

“There’s absolutely no data for what happens in classrooms with a very infectious variant when you take a mask off,” Weichert said. “This campus’s response, especially to this phase of the pandemic, has been more than lackluster and less than transparent.”

Gabe Classon is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.