Tufts abandons plans to drop mask mandate as infection rates swell

A student wearing a mask at Tisch Library is pictured on April 17. Ian Lau / The Tufts Daily

The coronavirus is spreading more rapidly than ever before on Tufts’ campus, forcing hundreds of students and some professors back into their bedrooms and onto the Zoom screen in a routine that’s become all too familiar after two years of pandemic learning.

Infections have risen steadily since students returned from spring break in late March. In the last week alone, close to 6% of undergraduates have tested positive for COVID-19, a rate that eclipses what has been reported at local, state and national levels. Isolation housing has been clogged, leaving some COVID-19-positive students in their dorm rooms to isolate, and uncertainty has swelled as the university braces for its final weeks of in-person learning this year.

The current gripping surge represents a stark change of pace from a month ago when the university appeared poised to join schools from across Boston and lift its indoor mask mandate. But as trends reversed and infections, again, began to mount, university health officials announced that the mask mandate would remain through at least early May and that universal surveillance testing would continue, raising tensions among students and prompting mixed reactions from Tufts community members.

The announcement, sent via email to the community on April 7, initially faced criticism on the anonymous social media platform Sidechat, and some community members took to an online petition titled “Tufts: Drop Mask Mandate NOW!” to express disagreement with university policy.

The petition, which has 479 signatures, notes policies from neighboring schools, many of which have chosen to lift their indoor mask requirements.

“We demand Tufts to follow state and federal recommendations and drop the mandate!” the petition says. “Masks have an impact in our mental health much bigger than the actual impact of a virus in an almost entire immunized population.”

But university health officials maintain that the decision to keep the mask mandate in place was made to ensure that high rates of COVID-19 transmission would not interrupt students’ academics or the various events planned for the end of the semester, including in-person Commencement ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2022.

“The steps we have announced are necessary because we continue to see a high incidence and prevalence of positive COVID cases on the Medford/Somerville campus, particularly among the undergraduate student population,” Michael Jordan, the university infection control health director, wrote in an email to the Daily. “Without our indoor masking requirement, the recent surge that has resulted in so many undergraduates testing positive would have been much worse.”

Jordan also clarified that the university’s original plans to lift requirements for masking rested on the contingency that infection rates would remain low. He said masking policies for next semester have not been decided yet.

One element of the planned policy change announced on March 16 remains in place. Performers are no longer required to wear masks or use other forms of personal protective equipment during their shows, though they are still required to do so during practices and rehearsals.

John McCann, director of the Tufts Wind Ensemble, expressed appreciation for the university’s prioritization of health and safety.

“My feeling is that the Tufts administration has set policy conservatively in their attempt to keep everyone safe and learning in-person,” he wrote in an email to the Daily. “I appreciate that as someone in an at risk group due to my age.”

While student performers were required to use special PPE until mid-March during performances, they can now play their instruments as normal.

“It is much easier to play without the PPE,” McCann wrote. “Various instruments respond differently to masks, bell covers, and bags around the instruments, but in general tone quality, volume, and intonation can be affected.”

Matt Freedberg, webmaster of the Tufts Wind Ensemble, echoed these sentiments.

“I was relieved to learn that we no longer have to wear masks during performances,” Freedberg wrote in an email to the Daily. “At our final concert of the semester last Monday, we finally took off all of our PPE, and I think it was clear how much of a difference it made in terms of sound quality.”

Regardless of the PPE requirements, McCann said he is glad his ensemble is able to gather and play their instruments in any capacity.

“Even with PPE in place, being able to play our wind instruments this year has been a gift,” he said. “Pre-Covid who would have guessed that that is something we’d be thankful for. Last school year we played boomwhackers exclusively, mostly out in the football stands. We had a reprise in our concert last Monday, just for old times sake.”


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