By Donald Halsing, Kathleen Moore
President F. Javier Cevallos announced changes to the University’s COVID-19 mitigation measures in an email to the FSU community March 3.
The email outlined revised testing requirements and mask mandates approved by the COVID Oversight Committee Feb. 28. Changes were proposed by the Mitigation and Testing Logistics Subcommittee Feb. 25. A link was provided to a “mitigation chart” of upcoming changes on the FSU website.
Starting March 6, wearing a mask will be optional on campus except in classrooms, designated offices as posted, large indoor events, the Whittemore Library, Danforth Art Museum, McAuliffe Center, Early Childhood Centers, Health Center, COVID-19 testing site, and on transportation including the Ram Tram and busses to Athletics events, according to the mitigation chart.
Also starting March 6, resident students and athletes who received the booster vaccine and are asymptomatic will no longer be tested on a regular basis. Random sample testing of commuter students will also end, according to the mitigation chart.
During the week following spring break, all resident students, spring athletes, and their coaches will be tested. Commuter students are encouraged to test at this time as well, according to the mitigation chart.
If positive test rates remain low during the two weeks following break, then mask mandates will be lifted for large indoor events and at the Early Childhood Centers April 2.
Cevallos said the planned changes for after spring break will be re-evaluated if a surge in the number of cases occurs.
“If there is a big surge or a spike, that scares us, of course. I’m hoping that will not be the case. All the decisions that we’re making are based on the information we have at the time, and certainly, we hope that the trends will continue to go in this manner,” he said.
Cevallos said the University does not need to continue testing as many people as it has been.
“Vaccinated and most asymptomatic people – there’s no reason for them to test on a regular basis.”
He added, “Certainly, students, faculty, and staff who have had an exemption to the vaccine should continue to test. There’s no question that we want to continue testing people who are not vaccinated.
“I think that for safety and peace of mind that we continue to offer testing to whoever is interested,” he said. “If you travel someplace and you come back, you may want to test just to make sure.
“I think that lifting the mandate or modifying the mandate in the middle of the semester – if everything is going the right way – makes sense,” he said. “Why continue to force [people] to wear a mask all the time if there is no evidence that the virus is around?”
Cevallos said the University needs a “flexible approach” to changing COVID-19 mitigation because some members of the FSU community and their families are immunocompromised and at a higher risk of contracting the virus than most people.
“We have to keep in consideration that we are on a campus that is very diverse in many, many ways,” he said. “We have to accommodate and make sure that whatever decision we make respects the right of individuals to be safe, and that it will ensure safety for everyone.”
Ilene Hofrenning, director of the Health Center, said trends for positive cases are heading in the right direction.
She said FSU’s positive test rate was 4.4% for January. FSU’s COVID-19 Dashboard listed 56 positive cases the week of Jan. 28 – just after students returned from winter break. However, the positive test rate averaged 0.5% during February.
Hofrenning added the transmission risk for Middlesex County is considered “low” by the CDC under its latest guidelines. Hofrenning said neighboring Worcester and Suffolk counties are considered “medium” risk.
Additionally, she said the positive test rate statewide is currently below 2%. “That’s the lowest it’s been for a while.
“We feel pretty conddent that we’re making the right decision,” Hofrenning said.
Hofrenning acknowledged that the mask mandate may resume in the future if positive cases rise. She added the COVID Oversight Committee will continue carefully monitoring data at the college, city, county, state, and national levels. “We’ll respond based on that data.”
Evaluating masks as a tool to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Hofrenning said, “One-way masking is very close to being as effective as two-way masking.”
Ann McDonald, chief of staff and general counsel, said the Mitigation and Testing Logistics
Subcommittee discussed the “benefits” of one-way masking. “It’s not as though you’re completely unprotected,” she said.
McDonald said memorandums of agreement (MoA) are in place for each employee union to address COVID-19 protocols.
“We’ve actually got four agreements, and they all look pretty close to each other, but there are some deviations between them,” she said, adding faculty, administrators, and staff all work in different spaces.
McDonald said the MoA for the Massachusetts State College Association (MSCA) – the union for faculty and librarians – addresses classrooms and office hours. The MoA for the Association of Professional Administrators (APA) deals with private office spaces.
She said each MoA requires the University to provide five days’ notice before changes begin and allow union members to ask questions about them. The five-day period began March 2 for the changes going into effect March 6, according to McDonald.
“The MSCA has, on a statewide basis, created a three-question survey, and they launched that survey last week,” McDonald said. The APA submitted questions about mask agreements for shared offices.
McDonald said APA members can require visitors to wear masks in their offices if they post an
announcement on their doors and if the University approves their decision. Those offices will be required to supply masks in case a visitor forgets to bring one.
While the MoAs will terminate during the summer, McDonald said, “We could potentially renegotiate them. I’m hoping when we get to that point, we don’t have to.”
Kate Caffrey, president of the MSCA Framingham chapter, said lifting mask mandates is “irresponsible.
“There are plenty of people with comorbidities. There are plenty of people who live with people who are at risk, and there’s plenty of people who work at Framingham State and go to school at Framingham State who have young children who aren’t vaccinated yet,” she said. “That is scary, and it’s problematic.”
Caffrey said she teaches theater and communication classes. “I hate wearing a mask,” she said. “It makes my job incredibly difficult because so much of your expression is in your face.”
However, Caffrey said she doesn’t want to bring COVID-19 to her 86-year-old mother. She also co-teaches a course with someone who has cancer.
“I don’t think I would ever forgive myself if I got COVID and then gave it to my mother and then she passed away, or this colleague of mine who has cancer passed away,” she said. “It’s not that much of a burden to wear a mask when you’re really talking about life and death.
“It’s five weeks until the end of the semester after spring break. So is five weeks of having this extra layer of protection not worth it?” she asked.
English professor Rachel Trousdale said, “I have a four-year-old daughter who is too young to vaccinate. I have an elderly father who has diabetes. I have a father-in-law who is immunocompromised.
“If the mask mandate goes away, that will compromise my ability to care for my daughter and visit my relatives without endangering them, so I’m pretty unhappy at the prospect of dropping masks,” she added.
Trousdale said students have been forced to leave her classes because they have young children or are immunocompromised themselves. “This is not just a hypothetical about family members – it is having real and immediate impacts on students even with the mask mandates still in place.”
She offered an analogy, “I’m tired of wearing my winter coat, but I’m not about to start going out in a summer dress because the snow is still on the ground and I’ll get frostbite. ... I’m tired of wearing a mask, but I’m not tired of breathing – so I’m going to keep wearing the mask.
“Masks are inconvenient, whereas unnecessary death is a tragedy,” Trousdale said. “The cost is inconvenience, rather than catastrophe.”
Valerie Hytholt, director of the Centers for Early Childhood Education, said COVID-19 mitigation practices at the centers are subject to the approval of the state Department of Early Education and Care.
While mask mandates were lifted for the center Feb. 28, Hytholt said the centers are still following the guidance of FSU’s leadership.
Hytholt said the children enrolled at the centers – with their parents’ consent – are tested at FSU’s
COVID-19 testing site. The state also provides rapid tests for free when children are exposed to COVID- 19 at home.
She said none of the children have ever tested positive, and for the past three weeks, she has not needed to administer any rapid tests.
If the mask mandate is lifted for the centers on April 2, Hytholt said she will ask the children’s parents if they want to continue masking informally while indoors. She said the children already take mask breaks, including when they play outside.
Many students are anticipating the lifting of the mask mandate at FSU.
Allan Montes, a freshman health and wellness major, said, “I think it’s about time that they lifted some portion of the mask mandate.
“I feel like it would make a lot more sense because if they’re [students] fully vaccinated, they have a slimmer chance of getting it. I feel like it’s more helpful if the testing goes towards the students who aren’t fully vaccinated,” he added.
Freshman biochemistry major Vienne Peltier said, “I’m a member of the women’s soccer team, so I think it’d be really nice not to have to wear masks during practice. We’re always with our team, so it’s not like we’re being exposed to new people.”
Peltier added wearing masks makes it harder to breathe when working out in the Athletic Center.
DJ Nelson, a freshman criminology major, said, “I agree with the sports stuff – I don’t think people should have to wear masks for that. I also don’t think people should get written up for not having a mask in their building [residence hall] – because that’s just stupid.
“I definitely think it should be less mandated,” he added.
Other students said they were fine with continuing to mask on campus.
Sophomore studio art major Christopher Benham said, “I don’t have a preference. I mean, I’m fine with wearing masks. ... I know it depends on the numbers on campus.”
Julia Comeau, a junior psychology major, said, “I think I’ll probably be OK with that just as long as there’s still people wearing masks, because I prefer to wear my mask – especially in crowded places.
“The library, maybe, would be good to still have the mask mandate, but places like the cafeteria, I mean, everyone always has their masks off anyways,” she added.
Junior marketing major Ryan King said, “Pretty much everywhere I go in public – going to some event or something – usually masks are required. I just kind of deal with it – I just put my mask on like everyone else.”