In a below-the-radar sentence affixed to the University of Chicago’s booster-mandate announcement, the administration decreed that face masks may only be removed in university buildings by those who are actively eating. The university announces, “Lowering masks while speaking in class is no longer permitted.” In addition to being epidemiologically indefensible, this policy is cruel to deaf and hard-of-hearing students like me.
This is not the first time that UChicago has announced a practically exception-free mask mandate for those within university buildings. The administration previously did so amid the summer surge in COVID-19 cases, exempting only those eating or situated in private spaces. Being a profoundly deaf student with cochlear implants, I knew that such a mandate would impair my ability to read lips, thereby inhibiting my learning and socialization. I wrote a letter to The Wall Street Journal decrying the school’s policy, which the paper published in mid-August, and shortly thereafter the university updated its guidance. Provost Ka Yee C. Lee noted on August 26: “A fully vaccinated instructor or presenter may choose to lower their mask temporarily while actively speaking, if they must do so to be heard or understood.” The administration explicitly extended this privilege to students in a September 24 email.
The university’s updated policy was a fall-quarter lifesaver. Some of my professors and fellow students felt comfortable removing their masks while speaking in class, leading to a dramatically better classroom experience than in classes where people kept their masks on. The only improvement would have been if the university sent out several dispatches explicitly signaling to professors that they could take their masks off while lecturing, as some professors were still unaware of the updated guidance.
New Mask Policy Will Hurt the Deaf
As a matter of policy, professors and students are now banned from making themselves heard in class. This reversal from the university’s August 26 announcement will especially hurt the deaf and hard-of-hearing by barring us from reading people’s lips, muffling people’s voices, and inhibiting effective communication. Moreover, since the new mandate is so extensive, deaf and hard-of-hearing students are allowed no recourse other than pursuing unadvertised exemptions, which (if granted) would unnecessarily and unhelpfully differentiate us from the rest of the student body and might irritate our professors.
Clearly, professors and the overall quality of instruction will also be hurt by the change in policy. In one of my autumn-quarter classes, the professor would remove his mask while speaking, but some students kept theirs on. The professor had a hard time hearing masked students, and valuable class time was wasted because the professor would ask students to repeat comments that were muffled by masks. With its latest mandate, the university is requiring that all professors suffer this aggravation and confusion, regardless of their students’ comfortability with making themselves heard.
New Policy Makes No Epidemiological Sense
The updated mask mandate is also arbitrary and medically nonsensical. The exemption-free policy announced this summer, promulgated because of updated CDC guidance responding to a Delta-variant-fueled torrent of breakthrough infections, was revised just days before the Delta-fueled summer surge peaked. Then, COVID-19 was in full swing and the university implicitly and rightly determined that allowing people to demask while speaking would not lead to more spread.
Now, the university states that the exemption-free mask mandate is a response to the Omicron variant, “which is currently thought to be more contagious than the Delta variant.” However, this attempted “explanation” makes little sense. Omicron appears much less dangerous than the Delta variant, which had not yet peaked the last time the university made a mask-mandate carveout. The Wall Street Journal reports, “In South Africa, which first identified the Omicron variant in November and where it has been the dominant variant since later that month, officials said 1.7% of Covid-19 cases are being hospitalized in the current wave of infections, compared with 19% at the same point in the third wave that was largely caused by the Delta variant.”
It is nonsensical that the university responded to a variant apparently eleven times less dangerous than Delta, on a per-case basis, by crimping people’s ability to hear in class. Further, the university announcement offered no evidence that the original exception for speakers led to in-class transmission. It may be safe to guess that no such transmission occurred, as our cautious administration would have otherwise shelved the exception.
Note that my argument—that if a mask-mandate carveout was made amid Delta, it can definitely be made amid Omicron—is separate from the broader argument over whether masks work. Regarding that debate, The Atlantic reports that Jason Abaluck, professor of economics at Yale, conducted a “huge, randomized trial of mask use in rural Bangladeshi villages”—encompassing 340,000 people—and “estimated just an 11 percent reduction in confirmed symptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection among adults wearing surgical masks (and relatively little evidence of any effect for cloth masks).”
Thus, the university plans to harm deaf and hard-of-hearing students–and inconvenience professors–to compel people to wear a mask which is potentially useless if made of cloth. This is the intersection of epidemiological idiocy and cruelty.
The Way Forward
UChicago should have abolished the mask mandate ahead of course selection, asked professors to broadcast whether they planned to wear a mask in class, and allowed students to pick their courses accordingly. That boat has passed due to the university’s lack of foresight. Now, the least that the administration can do is shelve the updated, highly pernicious mask mandate; reinstitute the original guidance allowing presenters to remove their masks while speaking; and thereby allow students, especially the deaf and hard-of-hearing, to have a complete classroom experience.
Otherwise, the university will irrationally be perpetuating unnecessary student hardship comparable to that which they incurred with the mostly virtual 2020-21 school year.
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.