My own college doesn’t start fall classes until after Labor Day, in recognition of the importance of summer work along the Jersey Shore. But many colleges across the country have already started. So last week, I asked those wise and worldly readers who work at campuses that have already started classes whether they’ve seen a lot of student defiance of mask mandates.
I ask because we’ve mandated masks when indoors for the fall, and there has been quite a bit of speculation about the degree to which students will comply.
I’m happy to report that the nearly unanimous feedback from the folks who wrote was that compliance has been widespread. Even better, the few students who didn’t comply initially were willing when confronted. Some may have grumbled or whined, but I’ll take that; you don’t have to be sincere for masks to work. Some students needed pointed and repeated reminders not to let the masks slip beneath their noses, but that was the worst of it.
(Admittedly, the viral story of the professor who retired when a student wouldn’t comply suggests that “widespread” is not a synonym for “universal.”)
One reader noted that “first year students … are more problematic. I have to repeatedly remind them to pull up their masks, and then they glare at me with open contempt for ‘violating their rights.’” The majority of our students would qualify as first-year, so this gave me pause. Still, “glaring” doesn’t transmit the virus. If they eventually complied, even while exuding attitude, I’ll take it.
Unsurprisingly, one element of a successful mandate appears to be professors (and others) carrying around spare masks to hand out to students who forgot, or whose mask broke, or who were just trying to see if the college was serious. That’s a part of our plan, too. That kind of soft defiance can be overcome through fairly straightforward reminders. And honestly, who among us hasn’t forgotten a mask at least once? During those first few days of class, the deans and I will be out there with extra masks, setting examples and confronting the sneaky.
We had quite a bit of back-and-forth on whether to mandate masks. The argument against it boils down to enforceability, which led to my question. The argument for it was pragmatic in a different way. When a store or other facility has a sign saying “masks recommended,” people interpret that to mean that they can do what they want; recent grocery trips suggest a mix of half and half. When a store says “masks required,” it sends a different message. That’s especially true if when you go in, a store employee says, “I’m sorry, masks are required.” At that point, most people will either put on a mask or leave. Mask wearing in the latter context tends to be much higher. In the context of a pandemic, a harm-reduction strategy strikes me as the way to go.
As a political theorist by training, I see the mask issue as highlighting the relatively attenuated concept that many people have of a society larger than themselves. (The reductio ad absurdum of that attenuation was Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no such thing as society.”) The idea that someone attending a publicly subsidized college could claim absolute individual sovereignty upon arriving there is nonsense on stilts; public subsidy implies a public voice. The old line that your right to swing your arms as you please ends where my nose begins doesn’t apply in the context of airborne pathogens. The utter shock with which some people respond to the reminder that we’re interdependent suggests that a sort of folk libertarianism has gone much, much too far. People need other people, which implies a need for a basic respect for their survival.
Yes, there are still asterisks. There may be students with medical issues preventing them from wearing masks; we’ll have to find ways to accommodate their needs. While we have a healthy array of online and remote courses, they don’t work in every context: in automotive tech, for instance, there’s just no substitute for getting hands on an engine.
But I’m hopeful that really difficult issues will be relatively few, and quickly resolved. Thank you to the wise and worldly readers who wrote and gave me confidence that the mandate might actually work. The stakes are high enough that it’s worth a try.