W&L loosens campus masking guidelines

Masks are now only required in the health center and classes with professor-made requests


Masks are no longer required in campus buildings. Dining hall staff worked without masks this week for the first time in almost two years. Photo by Elena Lee, ’25.

Bri Hatch

Full friendly faces made a comeback around Washington and Lee campus this week, after the COVID-19 Committee announced last Friday that masks are only required to be worn in the Student Health Center and classes where professors set their own guidelines. 

So, for the first time since March 2020, Washington and Lee students are experiencing mostly mask-free indoor classes and public spaces. And for sophomores and first-years, it’s their first time ever seeing college like this. 

“Being able to see people’s faces has been a really strange experience, but also one that I think is more conducive to actually forming connections with people, like around a seminar class,” said Kate Barnes, ’24. 

According to COVID Committee Chair and Associate Provost Paul Youngman, this change came as a response to multiple environmental improvements. 

“The number of cases on campus had been declining for the past couple of weeks, transmission levels locally and regionally were trending down, and local and regional hospital capacity was improving,” Youngman said. “Because things were looking so positive, our plan was to observe our community for a week upon return from break and, if we did not have an outbreak, make the recommendation to move to mask optional — which we did.”

Over 98% of undergraduate and law students, along with nearly 96% of employees, are fully vaccinated, the university’s COVID-19 Dashboard reports. And in the last week, only one person tested positive for the coronavirus. 

In both Lexington City and Rockbridge County, this trend holds: there has been an average of only one new case reported each week, according to the Virginia Department of Health website. 

Both students and professors are eager to see the masking requirements loosened, especially in light of these optimistic local trends. 

“I’m glad that W&L is following the science and following what our public health experts have decided,” said Finn Connor, ’23. “I was a big proponent of the mask mandate, especially during the larger surges like Omicron and Delta. But as someone who had COVID at the end of January, and as someone who is also triple-vaxxed, I am comfortable being unmasked at this time.”

Youngman said only a couple of individuals have expressed concern about these changes, and the COVID-19 Committee is responding to them directly. Some professors, employees and students are also choosing to remain masked for varying reasons. 

In the initial email announcing the revised guidelines, the COVID-19 Committee called for consideration of each person’s comfort levels. 

“Please be mindful that some members of our community will feel more comfortable wearing masks and distancing,” the email said. “We should all continue to be kind and respectful of others’ decisions to mask or not.”

Nathaniel Goldberg, professor and chair of the philosophy department, asked his students to continue wearing masks in his classes. 

“I have a family member with a health condition, and I just want to see in a few weeks what happens,” he said. “Maybe we will be maskless after that, but in the short-term, I just wanted to see.” 

Goldberg said his students have been understanding and respectful of his wishes. 

“I’m just so touched and flattered, because I thought there would be some resistance,” he said. “But not only is everybody agreeing to mask for however much longer it is, but they’ve also remembered without me even asking. I, of course, understand that it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable, so I’m really grateful.” 

Health concerns for close family members or friends is a popular reason that some students and faculty are choosing to remain masked. Others are simply prioritizing their own comfort and well-being.

“I’ve just finally gotten comfortable going in public with a mask on, so now it feels weird to not have it on,” Megan Murchie-Beyma, ’22, said. “I’m going to play it by ear and go with how my comfort levels are changing, because the whole pandemic has been filled with weird, anxiety vibes. And I don’t want to catch a cold, even if it’s not COVID.”

But Murchie-Beyma agrees that there are benefits, in certain classes, to being unmasked. She chooses to remove hers in choir specifically. 

“Because being able to sing without a muzzle is really nice,” she said. 

Loosening masking requirements does not mean the COVID-19 Committee’s job is over, Youngman said. They will continue to monitor case numbers and other environmental factors for changes.

“We would reinstate the masking expectation if we were faced with another significant outbreak that could not be mitigated by the vaccine and booster requirements,” Youngman said.