Masked once more: From a summer of freedom to protests and mandates

By Abigail Cloutier

After a hopeful promise at the end of the spring 2021 semester from Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel to end masks and social distancing on campus, COVID-19 guidelines were reinstated less than two weeks before the semester started.

As numerous schools including the University of Akron, Kent State University and Ohio State University moved to mandate masks, YSU remained undecided. 

Members of YSU’s faculty union gathered to protest YSU’s lack of a mask mandate Friday, Aug. 13, outside Tod Hall. 

YSU-OEA spokesperson Mark Vopat said their goal was just to get the university to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The recommendations of the CDC at this point are things like requiring masks indoors — we can’t actually, with the way the university is set up, social distance,” Vopat said. 

Despite masks being required, there were no social distancing requirements outlined in YSU’s updated policy. 

“But right now, it seems that the university is leaving this completely up to individual choice, and when it comes to health and safety of the students — a number of students who have children — we have plenty of faculty that are immunocompromised and students as well, it just doesn’t seem to be a prudent policy and seems to go against what the CDC is recommending,” Vopat said before the new policy was implemented. 

On Aug. 18, YSU announced masks would be required for indoor settings. 

As of Sept. 1, vaccinations are still not required on campus, despite mandates in place by KSU, OSU and Akron.

“Cleveland State, for example, won’t allow students to move back into the dorms unless they’ve been vaccinated. We’re an outlier,” Vopat said. 

Students also showed up in support of faculty. Eva Lamberson, a senior philosophy and English double major, wanted to use the protest to express her disappointment at the university’s previous lack of action.

“It’s really disappointing that the administration continuously sort of does things to make campus less safe for students and faculty. We’ve seen this not just with the COVID response but also last year with contract negotiations, and I just think it’s time that students come out and support faculty for our own safety on campus,” Lamberson said. 

Lamberson said she would consider taking the year off if cases were to worsen, despite her senior status and previous struggles with online learning.

“If we continue to see increases in the various cases around here and we don’t see a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate or any sort of leadership, it’s definitely not going to be very safe on campus, and I would consider going back online or taking the year off,” Lamberson said.

Currently, over 80% of YSU’s classes are fully in-person and no modalities are offered. Regular pre-pandemic asynchronous online classes are still offered.

“I just don’t think we were adequately prepared to move online either last year or probably this year,” Lamberson said. 

Contact tracing, COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics will still continue on campus.

Vaccine clinics are scheduled on campus for Sept. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Sept. 9, 1 to 5 p.m. Appointments are required and as of Sept 1., are not fully booked. 

We reached out to the Office of Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety for comments on the possibility of a vaccine mandate. They have not responded.

In addition to upgraded ventilation systems in student housing and N-95 masks for faculty, sewage testing will continue as part of YSU’s pandemic protocol. 

Biological sciences professor Chet Cooper will continue to head off the program and said last year, the testing helped the university predict and understand viral spikes in residential housing.

“In general, I can tell you we did see some spikes in concentration of the virus in the wastewater reported that and some of the data I got back seemed to suggest that did correlate with some of the testing data of the incidence of COVID-19 on campus in certain locations,” Cooper said.

They will continue to test the same locations on campus as last year and are waiting on funding to be able to get the technology to test samples in-house instead of sending them out to an external lab. 

“You have to ship it on ice, there’s variables in there — one time the shipment didn’t arrive on time and got there two days late and they couldn’t use that data — so if we are able to train ourselves how to do testing here, we’ll have a quicker turnaround and be able to get data out to the relevant location sooner,” Cooper said.

Sewage testing helps the university track spikes in the levels of the virus in various buildings before people may know they are sick. 

The data could also give the university insight into students’ behaviors.

“Part of the issues we’re having right now with the rapid increase in this variant is that folks relaxed and some places, they didn’t even buy into the first wave of infections. Now we’re harvesting the complacency, and I think we need to address that,” Cooper said.