It is a little strange to imagine what Amherst would look like without masks — walking through campus buildings and seeing people’s entire faces, stepping into classes to see our professors’ chins, entering Val to see everyone spooning food onto plates bare-faced. And this probably won’t change for a while, whether the college’s mask mandate gets lifted or not. If or when masks are no longer required, there will be many who choose to keep wearing them. It’s possible that the college will follow our peer institutions’ current mandate-lifting trend, but it’s also possible that, instead of following updated CDC guidelines to a tee, the administration will choose to preserve the mask mandate based upon our specific campus culture.
We on the Editorial Board are therefore not arguing for a continuation or removal of the mask mandate. Those decisions are complex and based not only on CDC guidance and peer trends, but also on the observations and values of our own administration. Yet, with the end of mask mandates becoming more tangible now than at any point in the pandemic so far, it’s clear that those KN95s that are presently so ubiquitous may, at some point, no longer be quite so easily found. We aren’t sure, however, that the campus is ready for such a change.
Campus discourse on mask mandates has been widespread and only increasing in intensity, demonstrated by the vitriolic back-and-forth between students in the campus-wide GroupMe this past Saturday, March 19. But while the topic of mask mandates is deeply divisive across the student body, one thing the Editorial Board unanimously agrees on is our community’s need to show basic respect for every one of our members, whether online or in-person, masked or unmasked. The type of derision toward others displayed in the GroupMe cannot be a pattern and cannot define our approach to campus culture if the mask mandate disappears.
The mask debate is characterized most of all by breadth: The number of differing opinions on mask regulations might as well equal the number of people discussing it. As a result, reaching perfect accord among community members and groups is impossible, and no policy can represent how everyone feels. With that in mind, a no-mandate policy and the freedom to choose whether or not to wear masks would quickly reveal in our spaces that diversity of opinions. We must consider how we would navigate such a change.
When we ask ourselves what kind of culture we want to see on campus, we invariably settle on one that is — first and foremost — safe. But to get there, it must be one that allows people to feel comfortable asking for their needs and trusting that those needs will be respected. Many people, whether for personal or medical reasons, may need to stay in a masked environment. While living on campus completely without a mask may seem like a dream come true, the needs of community members must be prioritized over everything else. Creating such a campus should therefore be the primary goal of the Amherst body, no matter the status of the mask mandate. The only difference that the loss of a mandate makes, then, is that it puts the safety of our community into our own hands. Rather than relying on administrative rules and regulations to tell us what respect looks like, we will have to pay close attention to our peers and listen to each of their needs.
We believe that this should be a moment to internalize the choice masks present to us. Even now, we often find ourselves in shared spaces with others — some wearing masks, others maskless. Regardless of whether the mandate is lifted, the need to respect the people around us remains the same: make your decision to mask or unmask based on the considerations of the people around you. This is vital to not only a healthy and safe campus, but a community that values all of its members.
Unsigned editorials represent the views of the majority of the Editorial Board — (assenting: 16; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 1).