The number of COVID-19 cases on campus have been consistent since masks were made optional in most indoor facilities, including dining spaces and residence halls, effective March 7. There were 35 positive COVID-19 cases among students and faculty in the past 10 days, according to Emory University’s COVID-19 dashboard on March 18. The same number of cases were reported on March 3.

However, Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair said it is too early to determine how the mask policy will impact case numbers, especially after it applies to classrooms, laboratories and other instructional spaces on March 21. 

“We have to be very diligent in determining what is a correlation and what is a causation,” St. Clair said. 

Past COVID-19 trends have shown low transmission in classrooms, according to St. Clair. He said most students caught and spread the virus off campus.

“Before the academic year started, we shared with the campus community that based on that data and the case investigations and the contact tracing, there were no documented cases of transmission in the classroom,” St. Clair said.

Amir St. Clair is the Associate Vice President and Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery for Emory University. (Emory University)

To prepare for masks to be optional in classrooms, Emory is increasing communication to update the community about expectations for the mask optional policy, St. Clair added. The University is revising website and social media content, posting videos and updating signage around campus.

“What we found is that there’s been minimal [confusion] and where there is, a lot of that can be addressed at the local level,” St. Clair said. “We’ve been empowering different student leaders and faculty and staff leaders to help address those questions.”

The University also recently added a section for up-to-date vaccination data on the COVID-19 dashboard, which counts the students and faculty who have both vaccinations and the booster if they are eligible. About  90.2% of students and 89.9% of faculty are up to date as of March 18. 

In accordance with the new policy, St. Clair said it is vital to respect the decisions of others when it comes to masking. Professors will not be able to require students to wear masks in their classes, whether it’s a large lecture or small discussion.

“It’s really important that we approach this change with an understanding of masks being optional, supporting compassion and empathy for those who want to wear masks and those who do not want to wear masks,” St. Clair said.

This month marks two years since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, and St. Clair said that by making masks optional in classrooms on Monday, the University will be achieving a long-time goal.

“The community has done a remarkable job of getting us to this point through their strong participation and adherence, and we want people to be confident in the safe and healthy environment that we, as a community, have created here at Emory,” St. Clair said. “We’re going to move through this period of time together.”

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Madi Olivier is from Highland Village, Texas, and is majoring in psychology and minoring in rhetoric, writing and information design. Outside of the Wheel, she is involved in psychology research and works for the Trevor Project. In her free time, you can find her trying not to fall while bouldering and watching Criminal Minds with her cat.