Washington State dropped its mask mandate. Will Whitman?

Lily Yost, News Writer

On March 21, masks will no longer be required indoors in Washington State, leaving Whitman with the choice to change their protocols. 

“We think this is both good for our health and our education of our children and the total reopening of our economy,” Governor Jay Inslee told reporters on Friday. 

With political pressure, decreased COVID-19 deaths and less severe infections among the vaccinated, over half of the states have decided to ease their mask requirements—contradicting the CDC’s advice to continue to wear masks indoors. Mask policies for school settings vary from state to state and can be different from overall state mask requirements.

“We still say that in our public indoor settings that have high rates or substantial rates of transmission that you indoor mask…we still have about 290,000 cases a day and hospitalizations that are higher than they ever were in our Delta peak,” the Director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said on Feb.18 in a radio interview with SiriusXM.

The Governor’s announcement on Friday left Washington State students and workers hopeful for a life without masks—but Omicron’s high infection rate still poses a threat to vulnerable populations.  

The Wire spoke with two students about their opinions regarding mask mandates at Whitman. Both students asked to remain anonymous.

One first-year student expressed discontent with Whitman’s policy for staff in shared office space. Whitman’s policy permits staff to remove their masks in these spaces if plexiglass has been installed around individual desks. 

“Two days ago I went to the business office…it’s a big room with six people, maybe a little bit more, there are no walls, just the transparent barrier, which is not really a barrier—it’s just a plastic wall, and none of them wear masks. And it’s six people in the same room.”

The student compared this policy to the study room code of conduct in Whitman’s library, where students must wear their masks at all times in single and group study rooms. If this is violated, the student’s ability to check out a future study room is compromised. 

“When I was in the single study room, staff knocked on my door and told me to put my mask on. It’s a single study room, it’s a private place, and then when I look at the business office with their six people working without masks, it doesn’t seem equal, or fair.”

A different student supported a removal of Whitman’s mask requirement based on the student body’s vaccination rates. 

“Given a 98 percent vaccinated campus, and that Omicron does not have a high mortality rate, and that Walla Walla has a good healthcare system, and overall I haven’t heard of any students getting seriously ill…I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Whitman’s decision to ease mask mandates depends on COVID-19 cases on campus as well as in the larger Walla Walla community. 

“We will try to look at the County in particular and also the incidents at this campus in order to make that decision, and then be guided by all of that data in deciding what to do here,” President Kathy Murray said.

Murray meets with Peter Harvey and other faculty members on a weekly basis to assess Whitman’s protocols and safety measures. 

“We’ll just keep looking at it and we’ll try to lower the threshold as things continue to get better,” Murray said.

The Coronavirus Task Force is also concerned for people with a higher sensitivity to viral infections.

“We have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable people among us who, whether because they are immunocompromised, are unable to be vaccinated, or have other factors that place them at a higher risk for serious illness or death,” Harvey said in an email sent to The Wire.

Whitman has been working closely with epidemiologist Dr. Ben Miller to determine COVID-19 policy. Miller works with two other liberal arts colleges, Carleton College and St. Olaf College, and noted that Whitman has the lowest campus infection rate. 

“So far based on the campus community positivity rate, the high-quality masks used at Whitman have contributed to a very low number of student positives since classes resumed in January…Whitman does stand out in this regard,” Miller said.