On March 2, the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) at Meredith College sent an email stating that they intend to make wearing a mask indoors optional, with some exceptions, starting on March 5, and then remove most of these exceptions on March 21. The email stated that full removal of masking policies is contingent on the case counts reported over spring break. However, due to the incubation of the COVID-19 virus, this time frame is not enough as most cases will occur 1-2 weeks after breaks end. Therefore, this timeline and the proposed changes are a mistake.
Prior to elaborating on my opinion on this decision, I feel it is necessary to present my qualifications. I am a pre-med senior majoring in biology and public health with minors in chemistry and professional writing. As a part of my majors, I have taken classes such as epidemiology, biostatistics and microbiology. Additionally, I work two on-campus jobs where I am regularly in close contact with other students. I also have a few health conditions that leave me more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and that would exacerbate the symptoms.
I have a few concerns regarding the recent on-campus COVID-19 policy changes. My first point of contention is that the masking rules in indoor spaces, like classrooms, will be lifted the day after spring break. However, the email acknowledged “that on-campus cases tend to spike after breaks.” On March 1, 2021, the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases reported per day in Wake County, NC was 109, with zero new cases. However, after spring break the same year, on March 30, the seven-day average was 226 cases with 235 newly reported cases. Since these statistics are readily available, why did Meredith decide to change the mask rules so close to spring break?
It is important to note that since last March 2021, COVID-19 vaccines have been widely distributed. Additionally, at 73% fully vaccinated, Wake County has one of the highest vaccination rates in North Carolina. However, North Carolina is only 59.4% fully vaccinated across the state. Despite Meredith’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements, there is still a portion of our campus that remains unvaccinated for personal or medical reasons. Herd immunity, or the ability of vaccinated people to protect unvaccinated people, will only be relevant once enough people are vaccinated. Diseases like measles or mumps are no longer a common medical burden because over 90% of the U.S. population is vaccinated against them. As presented above, Wake County and North Carolina are not there yet.
Another concern I have is for student workers. There is a large percentage of the student body who work and help to run campus stores, offices, events and other on-campus resources. Without these student workers, the campus would be unable to function, and many students rely on the income from these jobs to support themselves and fund their education. According to a study conducted by Scholarship America, 77% of students reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted their ability to earn an income and 30% reported losing a necessary job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, if student workers are exposed to COVID-19 because of their on-campus jobs and classes then they are unable to perform their duties. In turn, this takes away their ability to not only help campus but keep themselves afloat. This shows that now more than ever, Meredith needs to protect their student workers, yet their recent actions do not reflect this.
A recent research study investigated the impact of COVID-19 on college students’ mental health and academic performance. Of the students surveyed, over 85% reported increased difficulty sleeping, concentrating and feelings of depression and anxiety. Additionally, 82% of respondents stated that they had an increased worry about academic performance. As seen at the beginning of this semester, high COVID-19 case counts have the possibility of changing course modalities. The potential for courses to be moved online again as a result of these rules will negatively impact students and employees at Meredith.
On top of these startling statistics, minority groups are more likely to contract COVID-19, face hospitalization or die due to COVID-19 or related symptoms and are less likely to be vaccinated than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. Therefore, the ELT’s decision disproportionately impacts Meredith’s minority students. Meredith is failing to acknowledge the community as a whole and is looking for immediate solutions to satisfy student discomfort. However, this decision has the potential to exacerbate long-term inequities that will be detrimental to the community for years to come. How many more years of the pandemic do people want to live through?
There is no reassurance that mask rules will not be required again, and clearly there is evidence to prove otherwise. Therefore, the removal of mask policies will be detrimental to Meredith College and the greater community. If cases begin to rise again, there are a few options for continuing—all of which will negatively impact individual and community health. Meredith could reimplement the mask policies, which would be difficult to enforce after removing them. Another option would be to return to online learning, which as seen in Spring 2020 is extremely disruptive to the learning environment. None of the above are viable next steps in the result of a rise in case numbers at Meredith College or in Wake County.
Meredith repeatedly preaches the importance of the “sisterhood” on campus. On their website, an admissions blog post states, “It’s a bond that all students share…I feel like I can trust [my peers] — because they’re a part of the sisterhood. This built-in camaraderie.” However, this blatant disregard for the greater community does not fulfill the Meredith College “sisterhood” ideal.
To that I ask you, where is the “sisterhood” now? Where is your support for those who cannot afford to not work? Where is your support for those who are vulnerable to complications from COVID-19? Where is your support for those who cannot get vaccinated? Where is your support for those who did not have a say in this decision? Where is your sense of community?
Meredith College’s ELT has a responsibility to the Meredith community, and this decision proves that they are not doing their due diligence. The mask rules should at least be in place for two weeks following spring break, if not for the remainder of the semester. People should be able to handle being uncomfortable for a little while longer if it means better protecting one another.
By Elinor Shelp-Peck, Co-Editor in Chief