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Opinion: Clemson’s mask policy

Katie Bradham, Asst. Photo Editor

Last school year I received a seventy-five dollar fine for being maskless outside, socially distanced, during a dorm fire drill, despite the campus mask requirement only applying to persons inside campus buildings.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into chaos. At the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, little was known about COVID-19 or how long it would last. The best one could do during this period of uncertainty was to mask up, stay socially distanced, and keep their head down until the vaccine was available.
Unlike many schools across America, Clemson University got ahead of the curve in terms of testing. When the pandemic hit, Clemson was able to develop a rapid and efficient method of testing the student population regularly; those who tested positive for the disease were sequestered.
These testing measures, in addition to a switch to online courses and strict social distancing mandates, helped Clemson keep the number of cases at the school manageable in spring 2021 without having to cause another mass shutdown of the school.
The measures were so successful, in fact, that come Fall 2021 Clemson University was fully open with no plans to enforce masks or distancing due to the rapid availability of the COVID vaccine and the newly established CLIA covid testing lab.Trustworthy models of COVID transmission developed by Clemson researchers bolstered the case for the school to remain open. With high rates of immunity among staff, faculty, and students, Clemson’s leadership was confident that there would be little to no risk in having a normal and open school year for the students.
However, immediately following the overturn of South Carolina’s legislative ban on mask mandates in public universities, university officials rapidly changed their tune, imposing a “temporary” mask mandate on the campus despite having spent the summer prior announcing plans for an open, normal school year.
During an Aug. 16 General Faculty Meeting, Provost Bob Jones presented data compiled by Dr. Lior Rennert. This data indicated a very limited spread of COVID-19 throughout campus even without social distancing and with only limited mask use.
Despite these findings, Clemson told students in an Aug. 17 email that the university would be implementing a three-week mask mandate to combat the spread of COVID. In that email, university officials claimed that “masks were shown in our models to have a significant impact on curbing the spread of the virus.” This claim is contradictory to the data presented by the provost just a day before, showing low spread with limited mask use; but in contrast to the presentation that the faculty saw, this email shared no graphs or data points with Clemson students.
This kind of disregard for transparency and integrity has shaken the foundation of what it means to be a Clemson Tiger. Integrity, Honesty, and Respect, the core values of the Office of Community and Ethical Standards, seem to have been all but forgotten.
Last school year I received a seventy-five dollar fine for being maskless outside, socially distanced, during a dorm fire drill, despite the campus mask requirement only applying to persons inside campus buildings.
Further, the standards for when or where a mask is required have been wildly inconsistent. During the Fall 2021 semester students could sit and eat closely packed together on the fifth floor of the library without a mask; but only one floor up, where students sat at tables spread much farther apart, mask-wearing was strictly enforced by patrolling university event staff.
From mid-November to early January, masks were no longer required anywhere except the classroom. The simple existence of this policy points to a lack of logic on the part of the Clemson administration. Could COVID-19 only be spread in classrooms, but not hallways or cafeterias? This lack of consistency undermines the already-shaky justification for Clemson’s mask mandates.
Seeing the faces of friends and strangers has always been important, especially so in places of learning. Sitting in classrooms filled row after row with masked students is incredibly isolating. For students such as myself, the ability to read lips, see smiles, and understand facial expressions of emphasis or importance are of the utmost importance when trying to learn or collaborate.
Because of the mask mandates in classrooms, it has been difficult to recognize my peers, friends who I have sat next to for an entire semester, or even my professors when outside of the classroom. Collaborating on group projects, a task which can already seem difficult and foreboding, becomes a borderline insurmountable challenge. Without the ability to see passion, emphasis, joy, and so on, sitting in the classroom has felt extremely isolated.
Due to this lack of face-to-face socialization,  I and others find it difficult to interact with classmates or professors, a circumstance that has negatively impacted my and others’ ability to form study groups or connect to the taught material.
Clemson University, a beautiful campus of knowledge, wonder, and potential, has turned into a dark shadow of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion.
The university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many student organizations to be all but destroyed; Clemson’s small town camaraderie has vanished; The university itself, once a hub of scientific exploration and learning, has stagnated.
In a joint resolution passed by both the Faculty and the Staff Senate, Clemson employees stated, “Clemson University is a high seminary of learning, where decisions should be made based on the best available science.” However, these same officials have failed to listen to the Clemson scientific community’s research on the spread and impact of COVID-19 on the local community.
In the same resolution, faculty have chosen to uphold only the CDC, an organization focused on the general American population, not the unique situations of specific localities. It is up to Clemson University to make decisions regarding its community based off of the input of its community members and the scientific studies thereof.
However, instead of making their data and models concerning COVID-19 available for public scrutiny, Clemson University has kept its data on lockdown.
I personally reached out to Dr. Lessie Pekarek, the director of Redfern Health Center, last semester for guidance on where to find the data that Clemson has stored away from public eyes. Pekarek said that the information could only be gathered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. FOIA allows the public to access otherwise restricted documents from public officials for a fee. However, it is unclear why such timely and significant documents should be hidden behind this barrier.
According to Chapter IV, part B of the Clemson Faculty Handbook: “Institutions of higher learning are communities of scholars in which faculty gather to seek, teach, and disseminate knowledge for its own sake rather than for any immediate political, social, or economic goal. Such institutions are conducted for the common good and not to further the interests of either the individual faculty member or the institution as a whole. The attainment of that common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression.”
Clemson’s efforts to hide COVID information sows the seeds of mistrust and violates the values they claim to uphold in the faculty handbook..
Now, after the mask mandate has been recently repealed in all areas except the classrooms, medical facilities, transportation, research labs and testing sites again, I am calling on the leadership of Clemson University to repeal the mask mandate in its entirety.
Out of concern for the thoughts of faculty members, I recommend that Clemson washes its hands of the responsibility to enforce a mask policy and to instead revise the mask policy so that individual professors can decide whether or not they would like for students to wear masks in their classrooms.
For those who are considered to be at risk, I encourage you to feel safe by taking personal health precautions  by washing hands and wearing a properly fitted N95 or higher rated mask.

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