By Sean Callahan, News Editor
In the midst of spring break, Dr. Jeff Mallory, Executive Vice President of Saint Vincent College, sent an email to the SVC community on Mar. 3 informing them of a new mask-optional policy. This new policy applied to all indoor spaces and classroom settings, regardless of vaccination status. In his email, Mallory cited guidance from the CDC as well as continued positive trends as justification for the policy’s implementation.
“Currently, our college, surrounding local communities and our nation are seeing rapidly declining numbers of COVID-19 cases,” Mallory said. “We strongly believe that your commitment and diligence as a member of the College community to following the established protocols has allowed us to move forward.”
According to the email, masking within the wellness center or while getting tested for COVID-19 is still required. Anyone in the SVC community, including students and staff, may also request masking during individual meetings with one another. Mallory encouraged masking during large events and vaccination, and also said that the college would continue to offer symptomatic testing.
As of Mar. 13, following the policy’s implementation, the majority of SVC students and employees have entered the cafeteria or classrooms maskless. Classrooms with 20 to 30 students have contained anywhere from 1 to 4 people continuing to wear masks.
Reasons students have cited for prolonged masking have consisted of continued discomfort with the pandemic or because these students or someone they know or live with are immunocompromised.
However, the majority of students seem to agree with the implementation of the new policy for vastly different reasons.
Ronald Bell, junior philosophy and politics major, acknowledged that the mid-semester policy change was “interesting to say the least,” and saw how it could be interpreted as a controversial decision to some students. However, while he has no strong feelings about masks, he reported that he believes they are unnecessary as long as there are no COVID-19 case spikes on campus. He also feels that, regardless of mitigation, sickness will continue to be prevalent in some capacity.
“People have to remember that the standard flu hasn’t stopped either in times of COVID,” Bell said. “There may be an increase of flu cases, but I think it is more due to the changes in the weather rather than the removal of masks.”
Laura Wargo, sophomore public history major, who has continuously masked in all indoor spaces prior to the new policy, is hopeful about the current situation due to the CDC’s data on Westmoreland County and SVC’s caseload.
“It’s not the school implementing the policy for the fun of it. It’s following CDC guidelines, and I like to think the CDC is trustworthy,” Wargo said. “I also noticed on their website our county is green, so I feel pretty optimistic.”
Savone Williamson, sophomore communications major, also agreed with the optional masking policy out of a desire for students to have a choice, and because he believes the vaccine has made a choice more possible.
“If you have your vaccine, and you don’t want to wear a mask, I don’t think you should have to. If you want to wear a mask, you can wear a mask. This policy keeps whoever wants to be protected protected,” Williamson said.
Despite student perceptions of the ongoing pandemic, Mallory’s citation of positive trends among both CDC data and the SVC community do appear to be true.
As of its last update on Mar. 11, the COVID-19 Tracker for the spring 2022 semester displayed 208 positive student cases, as well as 59 positive faculty and staff cases. Although this quantity of cases has accumulated since Jan. 10, the start of the semester, only 2 of the 208 student positive cases had not recovered from COVID-19 at the time. All 59 faculty and staff members have recovered from COVID-19 as of March 11. This update comes after the first full week of classes with the mask-optional policy implemented.
According to CDC.gov, as of Mar. 13, Westmoreland County has reportedly experienced a 52.6% drop in positive COVID-19 cases between Mar. 3 and 10. In this time interval, all other counties surrounding Westmoreland—including Alleghany, Somerset, Indiana, Cambria and Butler—have reported a drop in positive cases ranging from at least 20% to as much as 70%. The only exception is Butler county, with only an 8.62% drop in positive cases.
As of the latest update on Mar. 12, Westmoreland County’s population percentage of those fully vaccinated (without a booster) is 57.2%.
Mallory ended the email by assuring the SVC community that, if the CDC determined that the rate of transmission in Westmoreland County surpassed low levels, mitigation efforts such as masking may be implemented again.