OPEN LETTER: Keep the Masks

I’m hearing rumblings about removing the temporary mask mandate from our campus. The decision has not been made yet, but I thought the informative email from Risk Management was odd the other day, as we’ve never heard from that office before during the pandemic. (Have we?) And today, I got another email from our faculty senate asking if we (professors) were comfortable with the removal of the mask mandate. These and other conversations I’ve had recently give me a notsosubtle hint that SMU is contemplating getting rid of our masks.

This campus was my home address for eight years. I love SMU. The people who make SMU special were my neighbors and many are now my friends. And like what can often happen in any long-term relationship, I am struggling to love it right now. We made a Pledge to Protect each other. Per the Pledge, I am asking that we consider how this action will affect others. The pandemic is a group project. We need to have each other’s backs.

It’s not just about us. The SMU bubble we are in gives us a false feeling that everything is fine because we seem fine.

I would like us to be doing more to be a good, science-based community partner. I would like frequent testing to be done on campus, perhaps testing wastewater as an early warning system. I would like us to require vaccinations for COVID-19 – not “mandate” them, but simply require them like we do for other diseases.

Unless we require vaccinations, we need to keep the mask mandate. Vaccination requirements increase the number of people getting vaccinated. I can’t even ask my students if they are vaccinated. I don’t want to ask unvaccinated students to come to class, because we are largely in a pandemic of the unvaccinated. However, due to the Delta variant, we are all at risk. Removing the mandate will kick up the level of anxiety in our already-stressed students, making it harder for them to learn. And it will increase the likelihood that COVID continues to spread and mutate.

At this Predominantly White Institution, the groups disproportionately affected by the removal of the mandate will be our students of color. It is these groups who will be most upset if we remove the mask mandate. This sets up another incident of racial insensitivity on this campus. It will also disproportionately affect those students living in the packed conditions of the Residential Commons who cannot retire to a room by themselves.

As a good community partner in Dallas, we need to do better. The Simmons School has K-12 teachers in our buildings every week. They are exposed to and are exposing unvaccinated children every day. Professors, staff members, and students have children who cannot yet get vaccinated. Vaccinated people can carry the virus and spread it to others. Until children can get vaccinated, we cannot remove our mask mandate. 

It’s not just about us. The SMU bubble we are in gives us a false feeling that everything is fine because we seem fine. In my classes, this is called emotional reasoning – projecting our own feelings on to a situation that exists independently of us.

Removing the masks when they may be working reminds me of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s quote about voting rights, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Keep the mandate. Please. It might be part of our community’s umbrella. 

Ann Batenburg, PhD

Associate Clinical Professor | Department of Teaching and Learning