Mandate exemption lets professors go unmasked

Martha Sanchez, Staff Reporter

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards reinstated his indoor mask mandate this summer as the highly infectious Delta variant devastated the state. There are some exemptions to this mandate, however, and at Tulane University, one such exemption allows professors to lecture without wearing a mask.

mask mandate leads to professor exemptions
The New Orleans mask mandate lets professors decide if they choose to lecture with or without a mask. (Cecilia Hammond)

An exemption to the mask mandate permits anyone giving a speech on a broadcast or to an audience to remove their mask while speaking. This allows Tulane professors and faculty to remove their mask while engaging in classroom lecture.The use of this exemption is not widespread on campus but has prompted curiosity among students, who are still required to wear face coverings indoors. The mandate is in place until Oct. 27, though it could be extended.

Tulane adopted the exemption after it received a number of requests from faculty and students. 

Some faculty have difficulty communicating effectively when wearing a mask, and some students must be able to read lips in order to understand a lecturer,” said Scott Tims, assistant vice president for Campus Health. 

For some, the Delta variant’s proven ability to infect the vaccinated is a cause for concern. 

Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said she thinks risk is relatively low, given the small number of COVID-19 cases this semester. But, she remains skeptical of the exemption for professors. 

“When I first read it, I just didn’t really think it was a good idea,” Hassig said before adding that she still wears a mask while lecturing. 

Masking greatly reduces the amount of aerosols emitted when talking or breathing. Lecturers, who must project across sometimes large classrooms, expel higher than normal volumes of aerosols into the air. A mask stops the majority of these aerosols. 

There are a number of complex considerations. A larger room size allows more space for potentially infectious aerosols to disperse. Vaccinated individuals are less likely to become infected, and Tulane boasts a vaccination rate of 95% among faculty and students.  Professors with young children who cannot be vaccinated could be at higher risk, and the exemption may not have been meant for Tulane at all. 

According to Hassig, the exemption was created for people like the governor or news broadcasters. Such individuals would likely be tested for COVID-19 regularly, but Tulane employees are only required to get a test every two weeks

A professor’s choice to wear a mask is entirely optional. Hassig said she suggests faculty members who opt into the exemption to take student input into account and that they should be cautious in their personal lives. 

“It’s incumbent upon those faculty members to be extraordinarily careful away from the classroom,” Hassig said. 

Carola Wenk, a computer science professor and president of the Tulane Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said most professors have continued to wear a mask while lecturing. She still wears a mask indoors when with other people and encourages others to do the same. 

Both faculty and students are required to be vaccinated at Tulane. Tulane’s COVID-19 Dashboard, an online monitoring system of campus infections, is reporting significantly low numbers. The seven day average percent testing positive is 0.1.

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