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Community members express relief, some anxiety following lifting of mask mandate

As the University loosens up on COVID-19 restrictions, community members react to the drop of testing requirements for unvaccinated students and mask-optional policy in classrooms

<p>The demand for saliva testing has decreased significantly due to increased rate of vaccination and the availability of at-home tests.</p>

The demand for saliva testing has decreased significantly due to increased rate of vaccination and the availability of at-home tests.

Students had varied responses to the University’s recent changes in COVID-19 policy – including lifting the weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated students, phasing out saliva testing for asymptomatic students and implementing a mask-optional policy for classrooms. While some students and professors felt that the decision was justified given the recent decline in COVID-19 cases, others feared a resurgence in cases.

An email sent March 18 by Provost Ian Baucom and Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis reported that the final day of saliva testing was March 24. Unvaccinated students are also no longer required to complete mandatory weekly prevalence testing. 

First-year College student Kiersten Freeman said she believes that lifting the testing requirement for unvaccinated students makes sense given the high vaccination rates in the community, but that surges in COVID-19 cases should be watched for closely.  

“I'd say with the decline of cases we've seen in the U.S. at this point, it is okay to kind of roll back some of those requirements,” Freeman said. “But at the same time, if there is a trend of a new surge in cases or the appearance of a new variant that we should reimplement those tests or requirements immediately.”

Currently, around 99 percent of University students are vaccinated against COVID-19. According to Director of Hospital Epidemiology Dr. Costi Sifri, the number of students who were unvaccinated and had been participating in weekly prevalence testing was just slightly over 100 students. 

University spokesperson Bethanie Glover said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily that the University elected to alter the testing requirement based on advice from both state and federal health agencies, as well as University health advisors. 

“University leaders and public health experts reflected on the low rate of transmission in our area and very high vaccination and booster rates within our community to determine that it was safe to lift this requirement for the small number of people who were still subject to it,” Glover said. 

In addition to lifting testing requirements and phasing out the availability of saliva testing, the University announced a mask-optional policy for classrooms and non-clinical U.Va. Health facilities March 25.

Several professors approved of the new mask-optional policy in classrooms, emphasizing the benefits of maskless interactions. 

English Prof. Herbert Tucker has taught at the University since 1986 and said he answered live questions after his first mask-optional class of the semester. Though he remained masked out of caution, he expressed excitement at interacting with students more freely.

“I think it's great today to be in a classroom where I can see some of my students' faces for the first time ever,” Tucker said. “And for me, who – I’m hard of hearing – the lifting of masks lets me do lip reading.”

Batten Prof. Gerald Warburg currently teaches a large public policy lecture in Nau Hall, where masks have been removed for crowds of hundreds of students this week. He chose not to be masked during his first two lectures after the mandate was lifted, and said he thinks the University made the right choice in removing mask mandates.

“Public policy leadership is especially difficult when working with incomplete and frequently changing information,” Warburg said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “[The University’s] recent movement on mask policy makes good sense and continues our community on a sound course.”

The University made a number of changes to its public health guidelines this spring. After Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order in January, the University rescinded its vaccination requirement for staff and faculty Jan. 19. The University later lifted its indoor mask requirement for all University spaces excluding classrooms, U.Va. Health facilities and University Transit Services March 21.

While the University’s academic classes are largely trending towards normalcy, other professors — especially in the performing arts — have been forced to consider different circumstances, and in some cases, ask their students to continue masking.

Marianne Kubik, drama professor and artistic director for the drama department, has overseen health and safety policies for the University’s theatre productions during the pandemic. When asked about the future of the drama department’s masking policy, Kubik expressed hesitancy towards a return to normalcy.

“I’m proud of our students’ selflessness in taking care of one another so everyone could be afforded the chance to stay safe and perform,” Kubik said. “I’m just as concerned about our performance students’ safety now because audience masking is optional, and I’m hoping our audiences will consider donning a mask during our upcoming performances.”

First-year College student John Barnes shared Kubik’s hesitancy regarding the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions. Barnes expressed his disapproval of the University’s decision to phase out saliva testing, citing concerns about a potential increase in cases.

“I think that's stupid and absurd,” Barnes said. “I think [phasing out saliva testing] is a ridiculous decision that's endangering the public health of this University, especially considering that we just lifted the mask mandate this week for most spaces.”

Although on-Grounds saliva testing is fully phased out, students who still want to get tested can pick up rapid antigen at-home tests at the Student Health and Wellness pharmacy as well as the U.Va. Bookstore. Because the University’s at-home testing resources are limited, students are asked to use these resources only when necessary — students like Freeman hope that the University will continue to communicate about ways in which students can access tests. 

“As long as the University does a good job of putting the information out there and making sure students know that even though testing is being phased out there are still places they can go to get tested if they so choose, then it shouldn't be a problem,” Freeman said. 

In addition to the information sent about testing, the University created a set of guidelines to provide students with information on how to approach COVID-19 concerns, based on recommendations from the Virginia Department of Health. Symptomatic students are encouraged to self-isolate and make a COVID-19 testing appointment at Student Health and Wellness, and those who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive are also encouraged to seek testing at Student Health and Wellness. Those testing for other reasons such as travel or group events are referred to free at home testing provided by the University or alternative testing in the county. 

Wendy Horton, chief executive officer of U.Va. Health,  communicated these initiatives and guidelines in a recent media brief conducted by U.Va. Health to ensure that students have access to accessible testing.

“We’re gonna continue to offer testing as long as we need it and sort of pivot based on the demand and where we’re at in the community,” Horton said. “We’re also committed to additional testing if a new variant comes, or something should change in our community, we would stand those back up as needed.”

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