What’s going on:

  • Mask mandates have come down throughout the state and most schools are following suit
  • Tompkins County and its schools have not always been 1:1 with the broader state mask mandates, and Cornell continues to hold off on rescinding its mask requirement
  • On Ithaca’s campus, opinion is still divided as to the best course of action

In the fight against COVID, a contentious domino has begun to fall. In mid-February, New York State joined many other states lowering their mask mandates and other COVID measures across the state in most public places following a shift from the CDC. This past week, that same mandate also was rescinded for schools statewide, with even the more stringent and impacted New York City following suit.

This all as cases continue to fall from their omicron high and optimism has risen among constituents and officials alike. Even the State of the Union was delivered maskless.

Locally this was a bit confusing at first, with Tompkins County remaining a high transmission area, and thus keeping its mask advisory, after the state dropped its mandate to be in line with the CDC stipulations. This was also in line with the state, as individual local governments and businesses could keep it in place.

However, this changed as February came to a close, with case levels and hospitalizations down, and the mask advisory was lifted in Tompkins. The county’s public health director, Frank Kruppa, still encouraged residents to stay vigilant against COVID-19 and encouraged everyone eligible to stay up to date on vaccination.

Once they were able, many school districts promptly dropped the mask mandate. Individual school districts will be able to decide if they want to continue with masking or not, but it appears not many will continue to opt-in. Ithaca City, Newfield, Trumansburg, Lansing, and other school districts took the leap within the first few days.

Then comes higher education, when it gets a bit trickier. While the state timed the dropping of the mask mandate largely around K-12 schools ending their late winter break, colleges and universities have a variety of dates when their spring breaks occur throughout the month of March and as a result, there is the extra concern of students potentially bringing home COVID with them or bringing it back to campus after the break. To this concern, Cornell University and Binghamton University have held off on dropping their mask mandates as of yet, waiting until a clearer picture is made later in March.

Some at Ithaca College, which dropped its mask mandate on Friday, are wary about the timing and impact of the dropped mandate too. The policy is not consistent throughout campus, as professors can still require it within their classroom and healthcare settings will still require it.

On the same day as dropping the mandate, the college hosted an accepted students’ day, Division 3 NCAA Women’s Basketball matches, and the New York State high school boys swim and dive championship. As a result, many from the off-campus community were here, something discouraged even with masks when Ithaca was under its ‘yellow’ protocol just over a month prior when COVID was more present. I did not attend the swim and dive event, but most at the basketball game went maskless, and the accepted students’ day had a mix of masks and maskless from when I saw the groups.

Professors have told me the college’s biology department released a memo to faculty explaining that it would be preferable to keep the mask mandate until ten days after spring break, in case spread occurs as a result of the movement of people. In addition, they have said general faculty were informed of the policy at the same time as students, leading to limited time to make that decision on whether or not they would keep it and potentially exacerbating the strained relationships among the school’s hierarchy due to different comfort levels.. Some professors have kept the requests for masks, some have dropped them, and some are following the memo.

While this is quick, and bringing people on campus for these sporting and admissions events with the option for them to go mask free may make some wary, it’s not something Ithaca is doing alone. Syracuse University, for instance, dropped its requirement for masks at the Carrier Dome, and it was slower to do so in the world of high-level college basketball. Syracuse students, however, are facing some of the same lack of uniform decisions and confusion that Ithaca students are.

No matter how you feel about the mandate dropping (I’ve heard just about every opinion among students for or against the drop), it really does feel like there is a new definition to March Madness right now. Which times should one put on a mask or drop theirs? Each person in their own circumstance has to watch for when these policies come down asynchronously at different schools and events, find out whether or not a vaccine is needed, and what personal decisions one should make.

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