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Colleges Are Making Masks Mandatory. But They’re Not an Option for Everyone.

By Megan Zahneis | JULY 09, 2020

Many campuses that plan to return to in-campus instruction this fall will do so with mandatory mask-wearing policies. Those spotted without a mask might be stopped by a campus "public-health ambassador" and asked to don one, or cited for a conduct-code violation. Students might be asked to sign pledges confirming to abide by safety protocol or called out by a professor for going maskless in the classroom.


The expectation on many campuses is clear: Wear a mask, or get in trouble.

It's a sweeping policy that's consistent with guidance from top public-health officials: Masks have been shown to help slow the spread of Covid-19. But for some people, masking up presents extra challenges. Accounting for those populations makes the question of community safety more complicated.

Jaipreet Virdi, an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware , counts herself among that number. Virdi is deaf and relies on lip-reading to communicate. Most masks, of course, make lip-reading impossible, and in turn pose a significant communication barrier to Virdi and others who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Clear face masks, which allow a view of the wearer's mouth, are gaining some traction, but even if Virdi's institution purchased them for everyone — which she calls "a very optimistic scenario" — reading lips from a socially distanced six feet away is, she said, hardly effective, and would prevent her from interacting with students in the classroom. In other words, Virdi said, a mask policy would be "a huge barrier to me managing my classroom, as well as me being effective in instructing."


The University of Delaware, she said, allowed its faculty members to choose whether they'd teach in person or online this fall. Virdi opted for the latter, but that doesn't mean mask policies won't still affect her: She's already had to turn down invitations to two events being held in person with masks required. And if she needs to go to campus for a meeting, for instance, "it's going to be a drain on my mental energy to try to comprehend what people are saying and then struggling to have communication, even if we have alternatives in place."


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