The University of Chicago recently promulgated a revised, inflexible mask mandate, banning professors and students from removing their masks to make themselves heard in class. I unpacked this policy in a pre-Christmas op-ed, arguing that it is scientifically invalid and cruel to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Nonetheless, the school recently reiterated its mask mandate.
In the summer of 2021, UChicago announced a rigid mask mandate with no apparent exception for those actively speaking in class. However, the administration revised its policy in August to allow presenters to temporarily remove their face coverings, a lifesaver for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. This exception faded away in a pre-Christmas dispatch wherein the university decreed that “[l]owering masks while speaking in class is no longer permitted.”
Deaf and hard-of-hearing people are especially victimized by the revised policy, which will effectively universalize the ills of masking: obscured lips, muffled speech, and distorted speech patterns. I made these points and more in my op-ed, which remains one of the Thinker’s trending pieces. It has received 2,600 individual views and was circulated by longtime UChicago Professor Casey Mulligan, the former chief economist for the Council of Economic Advisers.
Despite my objections to the policy, the university has evidently paid no mind to its effect on the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The administration instead doubled down in a New Year’s Eve dispatch attributed to Ka Yee C. Lee, university provost, and Katie Callow-Wright, executive vice president of the university and the president’s chief of staff. The administrators write, “The University has revised its masking requirements so that, at this time, instructors, presenters, and performers must remain masked at all times while indoors.”
Some have suggested see-through masks and special accommodations for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (such as notetakers). In the case of see-through masks, students and professors would have to wear them to even gravitate toward the pre-renewed-mandate status quo. This proposition is logistically infeasible. And even if see-through masks were universally adopted, they would muffle people’s voices and distort their speech patterns while only rectifying the lip-reading problem. Second, it is callous to suggest that deaf and hard-of-hearing students be differentiated and ostracized by unnecessary accommodations that would hardly boost their quality of learning.
Even if the school is not comfortable with lifting its mask mandate, the simplest, easiest policy is the original one: allowing people to remove their masks while speaking in class. The suggested alternatives are imperfect, cumbersome, and difficult to execute, and the justification for the exception-free mask mandate is weaker than it was even weeks ago.
The Omicron variant—UChicago’s stated justification for renewed restrictionism—has continually proven much more tame than Delta. Deaths with COVID have remained essentially flat over the past 14 days despite a 227% increase in cases (95% of new cases appear to be of the Omicron variant). And our campus is subject to vaccine and booster mandates, with only limited exceptions.
Moreover, the challenge to mask efficacy has picked up steam. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who has strongly backed masking in the past, said on “Face the Nation” that COVID-19 “is an airborne illness. We now understand that, and a cloth mask is not going to protect you from a virus that spreads through airborne transmission.” Cloth masks have counted as face coverings at UChicago, so the epidemiological basis for the school’s mask mandate remains unclear.
UChicago should once again embrace its tradition of independent thought and free discourse and give students, least of all the deaf and hard-of-hearing, the opportunity to hear in class. Rationality should not require a special accommodation. Given that we will be attending classes remotely until at least January 24, UChicago has plenty of time to retract its updated guidance on masking.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.