BREAKING: University Plans to Ditch Mask Mandate Following Spring Break

After nearly two academic years of mandated masking throughout campus, Baldwin Wallace University is planning to announce new COVID-19 protocols making masks optional in most campus settings with a target date of March 7, The Exponent can exclusively report.

The move is set to arguably become the most significant change in COVID-19 protocols made by the university to date but remains contingent on COVID-19 cases on campus and throughout the county remaining at their current level.

“Right now, our plan is to continue to monitor COVID-19 conditions around the state, county, and CDC in addition to our campus,” Dan Karp, assistant vice president and director of university relations, told The Exponent. If case numbers continue as they currently are, the university will announce an updated policy making masks optional, with certain exceptions depending on different types of activities such as music ensembles or athletics.

Tamika Rashid, vice president for student affairs, told The Exponent that an official university communication providing more insight on the change in protocol will be released soon, and that such changes have been made after careful consideration and consultation with relevant institutions.

“We continue to watch numbers here in the county and watch numbers [at other schools] around the county, such as John Carroll,” Rashid said, referring to John Carroll University, a private university in nearby University Heights in Cuyahoga County. “It is very similar to how the semester started in the fall.”

Karp cautioned that while March 7 is the current target date for the new protocols to be put in effect, it is not set in stone. The easing of mask mandates could come sooner or later depending on guidance from the CDC and local health departments.

Until receiving official notice from the university, Karp said students should continue to observe all current COVID-19 protocols including mask wearing as outlined on the BW Be Safe COVID-19 dashboard found on BW’s website.

While the planned change in protocol means students will not have to wear masks in common areas such as hallways, dining halls and most classrooms, certain on-campus activities may be subject to their own rules and regulations on a case-by-case basis as directed by the individual departments and programs in charge.

For example, Karp said that instrumental and vocal students participating in large ensembles at the Conservatory may still be required to wear masks, as those disciplines often require close face-to-face contact. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Conservatory has had their own policies in place for students to follow, and Karp said a potential update to the Conservatory’s protocols are “still in development.”

Student athletes will have different rules for the time being, as athletic department COVID-19 protocols are implemented by the Ohio Athletic Conference and NCAA, the national collegiate athletics governing body. Athletes will continue to adhere to NCAA protocols when engaging in team activities even after the new university protocol is instituted, though there’s no telling how soon the NCAA would ease their protocols to be more in line with most other institutions and localities around the country.

“Our athletes, coaches, and trainers here at BW will continue to follow NCAA guidelines until the NCAA makes a change, as our athletics department has been,” Karp said.

Karp said the planned protocols will only be in effect for student activities on BW’s campus.

“Students travelling as part of study abroad programs, internships, and field trips, et cetera, will be required to follow protocols according to their host site,” Karp said.

While sources stressed that these plans are fluid and could change if COVID-19 cases rise again, the planned lifting of mask mandates will be in effect when students return to campus after spring break. As of Feb. 25, BW reported only 6 cases of COVID-19 out of a campus population of 4,298: 4 student cases on campus, 1 student off campus, and 1 university employee.

“The campus and everyone have done such a great job following protocols and stopping the spread of COVID-19 over the last two years,” Karp said.

Karp said while the policy is based in part on current case numbers, there is not a specific threshold that would reverse the mask-optional policy, saying only that multiple factors would go into making such a decision.

“We’re continuing to monitor it and what would be considered a spike for our campus may be considered differently outside of our campus,” Karp said. “And that’s going to be based on what we’re seeing as guidance from the CDC and local health departments. Honestly, we don’t have a definition for what that would be at this time.”

The news comes as the CDC, on Friday, released new criteria for determining whether masks should be mandated in different localities, a strategy intended to push the United States closer to a “new normal” as the Omicron wave subsides.

The new CDC criteria is reported to include new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, new COVID-related hospital admissions over the previous week and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. About half of U.S. counties meet the new threshold necessary to remove their mask mandates.

According to data compiled by the New York Times, new COVID-19 cases have dropped nationwide by an average of 65% over the past two weeks, though some scientists are split as to whether this is enough evidence to begin easing mask mandates.