Hannah Rosenberg/Sun Photography Editor

Students study on the Ag Quad on Dec. 1, 2021.

December 2, 2021

Unmasking at Cornell: Are Students Shedding Face Coverings Despite University Guidelines?

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As the daylight dims into nighttime, computer screens illuminate the unmasked faces in Klarman Hall. Students sit at their tables, focused on their work, many of them with an empty coffee cup standing next to their temporarily abandoned mask.

As of Nov. 30, Cornell is reporting 18 active student cases on campus, according to the COVID Tracking Dashboard. The University has been in the green alert level, labelling it the “new normal,” since Sep. 24 after record-high cases at the beginning of the semester. 

Some students and faculty have observed a decrease in mask wearing amid this sustained plateau of cases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently encourages individuals to wear masks regardless of vaccination status in high-transmission indoor areas. Masking exponentially reduces the spread of COVID-19 and protects at-risk individuals, especially those who are unvaccinated. 

Currently, Cornell’s mask policy requires vaccinated individuals to mask up in indoor spaces — 97 percent of the on-campus population is vaccinated. In specific areas including cubicles and single-occupancy study rooms, masks are not required. 

“I think it’s more socially acceptable to not wear a mask at this point,” said Alice Lidman ’25.

Lidman said she’s noticed students have recently worn masks less often in places where they interact with their peers, such as in libraries. She said her friends follow these patterns — wearing masks in dining halls and classrooms but going maskless in informal and social spaces on campus, like common areas.

Claudia Sodano ’24 said students tend to shed masks when they sit down at library tables, in some cases citing the distance between them as their reasoning. 

Dorm room common spaces and hallways are also spaces where mask wearing has become much more relaxed. Unless RAs actively patrol and comment on students’ masking, Lidman said, few students mask up inside their residence halls. But she said this shift doesn’t bother her.

“I feel like a decrease in mask wearing was always bound to happen, so I’m not too worried about it,” Lidman said.

However, Lidman voiced her concern about a potential spike in COVID cases after Thanksgiving break and the upcoming winter vacation. 

Travel can lead to increased COVID-19 risks, and student travel over breaks has the potential to bring disease back to Cornell. In response, the University encouraged continuing preventative measures like masking and asked students returning from Thanksgiving break to receive a supplemental test.

However, some say they’re not concerned about the uneven masking in campus spaces. Kisa Jafri ’23 said she and her friends sometimes remove masks in common spaces if they agree with this arrangement.

“I think everybody’s at the same wavelength as I am,” Jafri said. “If we’re studying together, everyone is comfortable with not putting a mask on.” 

Jafri said that she works to make her peers feel safe, offering to keep her mask on if they prefer it. 

In settings like classrooms, which are regulated by faculty, students tend to obey the policy more closely than in informal social spaces.

“In those more formal settings where there is the presence of the administration or in a setting where you’re supposed to be professional or respectful, people usually wear their masks,” Ben Knepper ’24 said. 

Industrial and labor relations instructor Matthew Fischer-Daly grad said students generally wear masks in class. He expressed concerns about incorrect mask wearing, since students sometimes wear masks on their mouth but not their nose.

“I would like to see people wear masks more consistently,” he said. “I do think it is a signal of respect to other people given the information we have been provided about the pandemic, that masks are one of the most important ways to ensure that our interactions with other people do not result in us transmitting the virus.”