President Gregory Washington, Mason faculty and Student Government facilitated the discussion


Editor’s Note: The responses and questions were edited for length and clarity. The questions were asked by those in attendance. 

A town hall was held this Tuesday to discuss the lifting of the mask mandate scheduled for March 4th. President Gregory Washington, Vice President of University Life Rose Pascarell and others were in attendance to answer the public’s questions. 

Student body President Natalia Kanos and Vice President Veronica Mata have been meeting with Vice President of University Life Rose Pascarell regarding student concerns over the upcoming lifting of the mask mandate, according to Kanos. 

“It was out of that discussion (with VP Pascarell) that it would be a great idea to have a town hall so that President Washington can explain his thoughts… and have students ask questions and voice concerns… so they can take that into consideration when (administration) makes their decisions,” Kanos stated. 

Here are the five biggest moments from Tuesday’s town hall:

“What is the plan for after spring break? How do you plan to combat (students coming back from traveling) to keep students safe?”

President Washington: “So the reality is we expect cases will most likely go up after spring break because cases have always gone up when you all have separated from us–at every single opportunity and every single break. When students return the caseloads and numbers are higher. And so we’re going to maintain our testing, protocols and play. So you all will be able to get tested. I don’t think we’re going to see a major spike for two reasons. One. A large number of people have either contracted COVID or had been vaccinated and boosted. There are just not as many vectors for the disease as there have been.” 

For the past year and a half, Mason has made changes to health and safety protocols for students returning to campus. These served to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Will food service workers and dining hall workers still be required to wear masks?”

President Washington: “I don’t know, but most likely mask optional may pertain to them as well. The reason Food Service workers may fall under the Department of Labor guidelines, and so I just don’t know this for a fact. If they do, that has been taken out of our hands. It’s not something that I can make a decision on. I mean I can do a lot of things, but it’s really hard for me to just make a decision that differs from the government. I can try. But you still want to have a president at the end of the day, right?” 

Mask requirements set by private entities are mandated by Virginia federal and local laws. It is unclear whether Sodexo, Mason’s caterer who is responsible for the dining halls and some restaurants on campus, is requiring employees to wear masks. According to their website, they are “using greater protective gear.” 

“I am high-risk… How come you are getting rid of a mandate for masks that poses very little disruption to low-risk individuals… How am I supposed to protect myself?” 

President Washington: “It’s one of the reasons why we make our decisions based on data, not based on perception. Let me give an example: If we were to the point where it’s headed back to when we had a 12 to 15 percent positivity rate, that would mean that there was a higher probability that in one of your classes, somebody in that class had COVID. We want, in that environment, to have everyone masked. Because if they do have it, then them having a mask would keep it from spreading, and then your mask would protect you as well. One of the reasons why we went away from recommending cloth masks to recommending the surgical mask of the N95 mask was that we saw the Omicron variant take off and it was a much more contagious entity. You have to ask yourself the question: ‘What is the true benefit for your future decisions?’ If you don’t go with a mask optional. We’re not just talking about our ability to make decisions now–we’re talking about our ability to make decisions in the future. And if people think that there’s an inability to make decisions, or that your decisions are somehow political, then that prompts them to make policy changes for you.” 

CDC’s prevention strategies are tools for high-risk individuals. High-risk individuals include those with certain underlying medical conditions and are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. 

“What is the rationale for using cases as the metric when nearly everyone is using something else and the CDC is saying to use something else?”

President Washington: “The policies we have in place are for right now. Here’s what I’ve learned: two weeks is an eternity in COVID time. Policies you think work now, two weeks from now may not work. We maintain the flexibility to change our policies when the conditions change. So, We’ve been looking at cases, but remember our policy change came out before the CDC made its change on Friday. And if so, what we’ll do is we’ll adjust. We might look at more than cases as well. We have a really good folk from Information Technology and scientists all throughout. We utilize our best people and researchers focused in these areas. I am confident that we will make good decisions, relevant to the data, that makes sense.”

The CDC uses three metrics to determine COVID-19 community level, “New COVID-19 admissions per 100,000 population in the past seven days, the percent of staffed inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, and total new COVID–19 cases per 100,000 in the past seven days.”

Through these metrics, Fairfax County is considered to be a low community level. According to the CDC, this means that “People may choose to mask at any time. People with symptoms, a positive test, or exposure to someone with COVID-19 should wear a mask.”

Sami Gibbs / The Fourth Estate

“How would the university’s protocols be affected by a more, deadly variant?”

President Washington: “We are constantly monitoring these things as they happen. One of the reasons for taking down protocols when we reach a point where they’re just not as beneficial and not needed as much is so that you have the credibility you need to have so that you can put them back in place when you need to. We will put back in place as many of the mandates that we are allowed. That’s the reality of how we will manage this going forward. My ultimate goal is to do whatever I can to keep you all as safe as possible and do it in the context of abiding by state rules and state law.”

Dr. Wintermeyer: “I don’t know a lot about the new variants, but as time goes on, we’ll learn more. What Mason has done is basically a series of mitigation efforts: Mason COVID Health Check, masking, obviously, social distancing surveillance, testing rapid testing. If a new variant comes and it’s worse than it says transmissible or worse than Omicron and more serious than Omicron. Yeah, that’s going to be a serious issue and as President Washington said we can start implementing some of the things that we’ve done in the past…One thing I want to mention is the medical people, the Emergency Management people. We have been meeting regularly with Fairfax County Health Department for almost two years. At one point it was three meetings a week, now it’s one meeting a week because things are looking better, but we’ll keep doing that.”

The World Health Organization and other networks have adopted classifiers Variants of Interest (VOIs) and Variants of Concern (VOCs), “in order to prioritize global monitoring and research, and ultimately to inform the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant, BA.2 has been recently detected in Maine. This variant is classified as a Variant of Concern, according to the United Nations. 

The CDC states that a Variant of Concern is a variant for which there is “evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease, significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated…, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.” 

When asked how he thought the town hall went, Washington responded with “I thought it went fine… people have questions and you want to be able to answer the questions and give them honest, direct, clear feedback, and I think we’ve done that–that was the goal.”

Washington also emphasized that he wants students and staff to realize what was said during the meeting may not be entirely accurate.

“I recognize that we don’t live in a perfect world, and so not all of the answers will be the answers that people will want to hear. My hope is that when the answers are clear, that the answers address the questions that have been asked and that they know that we ultimately have their best interest at heart.”