Once again, the University of Chicago has repealed a COVID restriction following a pressure campaign from the Chicago Thinker.
On Friday, February 4, “UChicago Forward Communications,” which anonymously dispatches weekly COVID updates to the UChicago community, announced that the school has reinstated its mask mandate carveout for students and professors actively speaking, perhaps thanks to Thinker Vice President and deaf UChicago student Declan Hurley.
Citing “positive trends in the COVID-19 metrics,” UChicago Forward Communications informed students that “[s]peakers may pull down their mask temporarily while actively speaking or presenting in order to be heard or understood. They should return their mask to its position over their nose and mouth when not actively speaking.”
This modification is only the latest flip-flop in the ping-pong match UChicago’s administration keeps playing with Hurley and others concerned with hearing their professors, peers, and colleagues.
This summer, UChicago announced an unconditional classroom mask mandate for the 2021-22 academic year. In response, Hurley published a letter in The Wall Street Journal, explaining, “When service workers or professors wear masks, I am unable to see half their faces and my understanding of their speech declines precipitously.”
Less than two weeks later, UChicago announced its first mask mandate carveout on August 26, 2021. Individuals were permitted to remove their masks “temporarily while actively speaking,” the caveat being that the carveout only applied to the fully vaccinated. Despite the narrow scope of this exemption (individuals were still forced to mask up in university buildings in most other situations), Hurley referred to the carveout as a “lifesaver” for the duration of the fall quarter, articulating that it led to “a dramatically better classroom experience.”
UChicago revoked this carveout on New Year’s Eve, shortly after it announced its inconsistent, anti-scientific booster mandate and temporary imposition of remote learning. The university notified the community that UChicago “has revised its masking requirements so that, at this time, instructors, presenters, and performers must remain masked at all times while indoors.”
Hurley fired back, writing a piece in the Thinker to indicate that the lack of a carveout to better accommodate hearing-impaired students was just as insensitive this winter as it was when it was first announced. Denouncing the reinstatement of this policy as “cruel,” Hurley explained that masks result in “obscured lips, muffled speech, and distorted speech patterns,” all of which significantly impact anyone with an impairment like his.
If this is starting to feel repetitive, dear reader, that’s because it is.
The Thinker also posted a short video of Hurley summarizing his frustrations with the university’s discriminatory masking policy, which was picked up by Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford Medicine. The video has since reached over 70,000 views on Twitter.
UChicago Forward Communications announced its reinstatement of the mask mandate carveout directly after the university received this Thinker-led negative publicity. Concerned students may nevertheless doubt the permanence of this carveout, as the university may revoke it again.
For some outspoken professors, this limited exemption is not enough. Casey Mulligan, UChicago economics professor and former chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers under the Trump administration, tweeted the following:
Rachel Fulton Brown, UChicago’s preeminent professor of medieval European history, joined in, tweeting, “We can’t let them make ‘lowering your mask to speak’ the New Normal.”
It remains an open question whether the university will heed these professors’ advice and consider allowing college students to have an authentic, mask-free university experience. The university has already reversed COVID policy, following pressure campaigns initiated by Thinker staff writers Daniel Schmidt and Jahmiel Jackson. If the pattern holds, the university may more fully embrace Hurley’s demands when it’s financially profitable.
Mitchell Robson is the Chicago Thinker’s Associate Publisher, Chief Newsletter Officer, and Social Media Director. As a third year at the University of Chicago, he is majoring in Physics and Molecular Engineering and minoring in History. When not studying or doing work for the Thinker, you can probably find him shooting hoops, reading something by Ludwig von Mises, or cheering on the Patriots or Celtics.