During the first week of this semester, my professors have reflected Rhode Island College’s current policy regarding masking that places discretionary power in their hands. Some opened the topic to discussion among students with the intent of reaching a collective understanding, some addressed the matter ultimately leaving masking to individual discretion.
I found myself in a moment of doubt, recurring with each repeated first class: Should I vocalize my concerns or should I trust that our class could arrive at a decision that I felt comfortable with? Would I be opening up a can of worms and marking myself as “the mask guy” in class? I kept my mouth shut with any would-be-treacherous facial expressions hopefully hidden by my literal mask.
For the most part, my fellow classmates – graduate students in the school of social work – have individually chosen to forgo masking, a decision that reflects the attitudes of the broader RIC student body. With that in mind, I realize that in all likelihood you too have decided to no longer wear a mask while on campus. As someone aspiring to become a social worker I found this trend to be understandable, albeit mildly troubling.
Understandable because vaccines are widely available and Rhode Island continues to enjoy relatively low rates of transmission and infection, however all the epidemiological reasons for wearing a mask continue to hold true. Masks continue to reduce the likelihood of transmission of airborne diseases, not just COVID but also colds and the flu. The masks also protect both my health and the health of others around me, most especially people around campus who are immunocompromised and have other comorbidities. At the same time, I also recognize that some classmates with hearing impairments may be better served in the classroom when they are able to read lips and masks would get in the way of that.
I understand the common counterpoints that are often brought up. This is the start of a new school year, the numbers continue to look good and there was even a recent science report of an antibody for all known COVID-19 variants. Things appear to be very promising, but for me, continuing to wear a mask on campus is an embodiment of the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics – most especially the value of social justice.
I do it as an act of empathy for my classmates who must continue to wear a mask for whatever reason – and more importantly, as an act of solidarity with students, faculty and staff who have been asked to out themselves for their otherwise hidden medical conditions. They have been asked to risk their privacy for the sake of public convenience.