Tuesday was the first day that masks were no longer required in Emporia State campus buildings. However, professors have been given the option to continue requiring masks in their own classrooms.

Not all professors feel the same about the new policy. Across the various departments on campus, different professors have different classroom policies, depending on their comfortability and sometimes feedback from their students.

Heidi Hamilton, chair of the communication department and professor of communication and theatre, appreciates that the university treated classrooms differently from other spaces on campus and acknowledged they need special considerations. However, leaving it up to the professors adds unnecessary weight on faculty.

“I think that professors are being asked to make decisions that perhaps are not entirely fair for them to have to make,” Hamilton said.

It is a “no-win” situation and some students will be upset with professors no matter what the classroom policy is, according to Hamilton. 

“The best decision is the best available decision at this time,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know that absent a uniform policy, like we’ve had, in place as a university that there is any one correct decision. I think what we’re trying to do is do our best.”

The music department will be continuing with the masking policies that they have had this academic year and, unless students are playing an instrument or singing, they will be asked to wear their masks, according to Allan Comstock, chair of the music department and professor of music. However, this is not a department-wide policy.

Ensembles and lessons create a higher risk environment because players and singers are breathing “very vigorously,” according to Comstock.

“It’s a difficult situation,” Comstock said. “I’m not sure I’d go as far as ‘no-win,’ but it does put extra burden on the faculty members and I’m not sure that it’s a burden that should be put on faculty. You know, we’re not supposed to be police.”

There is currently no policy in place to help professors enforce their classroom mask requirements. The email sent to campus on Feb. 22 stated that “instructors have the right to require masks in their classrooms with their students,” but did not specify how that could be enforced without a campus-wide mandate.

“That was a little bit potentially problematic,” Comstock said.

Hamilton stated that some faculty in the communication department had expressed concerns about enforcing their policies.

Assistant professors of nursing Autumn McCullough and Bridget Camien did not express the same concerns.

“I think it’s great that we’re sticking with the (CDC) guidelines and not erring too hard on the side of caution or fear,” Camien said.

Both Camien and McCullough will not be requiring masks in their classrooms or wearing masks themselves. All of the nurses and students are required to be vaccinated, with some exceptions, so McCullough is comfortable not masking around people and being around people not wearing masks.

McCullough estimated that 25% or less of her students would still be wearing masks in an interview on Friday.

In order to adopt the new optional mask policy, the nursing department had to get permission from Newman Regional Health which owns Cora Miller Hall, according to McCullough.

Neither McCullough nor Camien had considered how they would accommodate students with the new policy prior to an interview on Monday. McCullough will not be accommodating students who are uncomfortable in mask-optional classrooms. She hasn’t offered remote options this semester because, “if you’re gone, you’re gone.”

“I don’t know if I would offer that to a student that was truly uncomfortable with that because I think you kind of get into a situation, too, to where that could be taken advantage of,” McCullough said.

Camien said she would be doing the same in her class because she does “active learning.” 

“If somebody actually has a true medical concern, I would definitely want to work with the student to provide a place where they feel safe for their education,” McCullough said.

McCullough said she would possibly offer a “Zoom classroom” for immunocompromised students, if they had the proper documentation and medical exemption, where they could attend class via Zoom from a different classroom. 

Camien said she divides students into rotating groups for projects but would allow students with “genuine medical concerns” to stay with the same group for the semester.

Spring break travel and how that would increase positive COVID-19 cases was a concern for Hamilton.

“I think the test case will be once people go away for spring break and they’re around others and then we all come back,” Hamilton said. “It’s that next week or two that will probably be the test.”

McCullough and Camien acknowledged that there could be a slight increase in positive cases after spring break but they were not too concerned. 

“I think that if it needs to be reinstated, you can reinstate it,” McCullough said. “There’s no reason, in my opinion, to hold off for the what if. I think that it’s okay to do it now and then come back from spring break and, if the numbers in the county have been increasing, then we can always reinstate the mask mandate. It’s just as easy.”

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