University to lift mask mandate when six feet of distance can be maintained, downsizes testing program

Individuals who have submitted proof of receiving both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot will be exempt from mandatory asymptomatic testing.

A+student+studying+indoors+without+a+mask+on

Emery Little

A student studying indoors without wearing a mask, as photographed on Sept. 24, 2019. (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Rachael Perrotta, News Editor

Masks will no longer be required in on-campus indoor spaces when students return from Spring Break on March 14 if six feet of distance can be maintained. Fully vaccinated and boostered individuals are also exempt from random selection for the sentinel testing program, effective immediately, per an email sent at approximately 1:15 p.m. CST today by Eric Kopstain, vice chancellor for administration.

According to the updated testing protocols, community members who have submitted proof of receiving two COVID-19 vaccine doses but who have not received a booster shot will stop weekly testing and, instead, will be included in the university’s sentinel testing program. Unvaccinated individuals will continue to be tested twice per week. All individuals remain exempt from COVID-19 testing protocols for 90 days after receiving a positive test result. The email reads that individuals are still able to receive asymptomatic tests if they desire at the Rec Center, regardless of the new policies.

The university did not immediately respond to The Hustler’s request for comment regarding whether unvaccinated individuals will still be required to wear masks on campus. 

Kopstain directed those who need a classroom accommodation due to the new policies to the Student Access Services Office and the Equal Opportunity and Access Office.

“The university will continue to support those who want to wear a mask at any time for any reason,” the email reads. “We expect all members of the Vanderbilt community to respect others’ choices regarding masking.”

Kopstain stated in his email that the policy changes come as a result of decreased positive cases on campus, in Nashville and across the country, as well as from advice from public health experts. According to The New York Times, new reported COVID-19 cases have dropped by 66% nationwide, 68% in Tennessee and 71% in Davidson County in the past two weeks. The protocol updates are subject to change along with community positivity rates and case counts, per the email.

As of print, indoor mask mandates are still in effect in all Vanderbilt University Medical Center buildings and shuttles. Belmont University similarly shifted to an on-campus mask-optional policy on Feb. 22. Metro Nashville Public Schools also plan to waive their mask mandate starting March 11.

“This decision comes backed by science—positive cases of COVID-19 at Vanderbilt dropped 60 percent between the week of Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, and continuing discussions with leading public health experts have guided our decision making through the course of the pandemic,” the email reads.

Sophomore Nate Hunsberger said he is looking forward to the policy’s implications on Rec Center protocols.

“I’m excited to run on a treadmill without a mask,” Hunsberger said in a message to The Hustler. 

First-year Sonia Kim said she is excited for the mask mandate to be lifted but is skeptical of the university’s decision to delay the policy change until after Spring Break. The university did not immediately respond to The Hustler’s request for comment about the reasoning behind this decision.

“People would be traveling all over during break and of course after break seems like a perfect time for folks to gather back on campus and spread the newly gained sources of infection!” Kim said in a message to The Hustler.

First-year graduate student Cathy Terrace said that the change in policy is “disappointing” in a message to The Hustler. She referenced the university’s virtual learning policy, about which she co-wrote a petition against in January, stating that the mask and testing policy updates similarly are dangerous for disabled and immunocompromised community members.   

“Masking on campus is already poorly enforced, and there seems to be little chance some will respect this 6 foot distance clause. This policy will make it harder for students who want to protect their health to advocate for themselves,” Terrace said. “This pandemic is not over, Vanderbilt needs to acknowledge this.”