Open Letter to President Sands and Provost Clark from VT AAUP Regarding Masking Policy at VT

Dear President Sands and Provost Clarke :

The Virginia Tech chapter of the American Association of University Professors endorses the Faculty Senate’s 2/27 statement on continuing the requirement for mask mandates through the end of the semester for the safety of faculty, staff, and students. We concur fully with its reasoning and conclusions.

While we appreciate the administration’s willingness to give faculty flexibility, it is important for it to issue clear centralized guidelines and enforcement so that individual faculty members are not left to implement a mask strategy that varies from class to class. We understand the tension between the institution’s needs to address mental health issues that have been exacerbated by a variety of mitigation approaches and its desire to protect the physical health of our community—nonetheless we assert that the choice to wear a mask is not a private matter but a public one, since mask wearing provides the greatest benefit to others. We are strongest and the most united when we put the well-being of others above our personal considerations. Faculty and students should have the freedom to educate and learn in an environment that is as safe as possible. 

We hope that the university will communicate clear, scientifically based plans for the fall 2022 semester.  We also hope for a variety of contingencies to address a range of likely scenarios. We understand that there is a likelihood of having a smaller proportion of vaccinated individuals on campus in the Fall 2022 semester, and we support efforts to maximize the health and safety of the entire university community.

This is an opportunity to display our collective solidarity to make working and learning at Virginia Tech as safe as possible. We stand committed to work with the faculty and the leadership of our university to promote a healthy work environment for all. Thank you again for your openness to our concerns and your ongoing efforts to address these challenges. 
VTAAUP Executive Committee

Here is the VT Faculty Senate’s statement of 2/27:

Statement:

We, the leaders of the Faculty Senate and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, request that the indoor mask mandate remain in place for the remainder of the 2022 spring semester.

The idea of removing our masks likely appeals to most of us. To be done with them would feel like being done with COVID-19, like going back to our lives before we had to use terms like “super spreader” and “social distancing,” before vaccinations and testing, before this pandemic killed millions, sickened more, and forced us apart from each other in ways we are still struggling to understand.  

But we are not done with COVID-19, or COVID-19 is not done with us, and the understandable sense of personal liberation that would come from putting away our masks would also come at a cost to those who cannot afford to exercise this choice, like our immunocompromised community members. Masks work when everyone wears them. To treat them as an option, a personal choice, requires setting aside the science and pretending that we don’t know what we know about this airborne pathogen, about its nature and transmission.

We use the phrase Ut Prosim so often that it can lose meaning and become something we say more than a philosophy we put into action. But the aspirational nature of the phrase – that I may serve, that I may set aside personal ease or advantage in favor of the community, that I may look out for those who are vulnerable or less privileged — turns the idea of sacrifice around. At Virginia Tech, we draw pride from what we ask of ourselves, more than what is asked of us by others.

We believe that the minimal hardships of masking are outweighed by the collective protection they offer and the symbolism of being together in our struggle against COVID-19. We too would like to see the expressions of our colleagues and students, and look forward to the day when the suffering and isolation of this period are at an end. But we are not at that point, and with so little time left in the academic year, maintaining the mask mandate poses no great burden relative to the possible advantages. We will learn more about COVID-19 over the summer, both its nature and the conditions we can expect to be dealing with in the next academic year. If it turns out that we are able to put away our masks in the fall, the additional time to prepare for a change in what has become the norm will be an advantage to all of us.

While it is the norm at Virginia Tech that we look out for each other, it is the sole responsibility of those who lead the university to make decisions that keep us all safe. As faculty members and students, we cannot begin to understand the enormity of that burden or the complexity of weighing all the expectations and requests directed at the president, the provost, and the Board of Visitors. But we are charged to speak for our senators and those they represent, and consequently call on the administration to maintain the mask mandate for the remainder of the spring semester in classrooms and other indoor spaces where large numbers of people congregate. It is our belief that doing so would not only benefit the health of our community but make clear that Virginia Tech prioritizes the wellbeing of every employee, student, and faculty member, and wants to create a campus where all are welcome.

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