Mask-Recommended: Students’ smiles are revealed as SLUH moves to Condition II

Today—Thursday, February 17, 2022, almost two years since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic—students will not be greeted by the stark appearance of masks covering their fellow classmates’ faces, but the joyous, unmasked smiles of students reveling in the administration's decision to move to Condition II.

Art: Will Blaisdell

The path to Condition II has been a long, unpredictable journey, with many moving parts. In August, the administration outlined its health plan for the school year. The plan outlined four conditions that the school could easily fluctuate between based on community and local metrics. 

“Our safety plan has gotten a lot of very positive feedback from the city and the archdiocese,” said Principal Ian Gibbons, SJ. “It's really important for us to be able to follow through with that plan, not only because it's designed to keep us safe, but also to keep us adapting to changes in the circumstances here at SLUH and within the region.”

In order for SLUH to adjust to a mask recommended policy, four factors would have to be met. First the school would have to achieve high vaccination rates amongst the faculty and student body, a regional positivity rate of less than 10 percent, an R-naught factor of less than one, and single digit monthly Covid cases reported in the school. 

“Having a safety plan that's largely based off of metrics is great because it is clear and concise. I think (our plan) spells out very nicely how the school is going to transition and shift based on conditions that are in the region and within the walls of SLUH,” said Director of Student Health Scott Gilbert. “If you put together plans that are very loose and based off of no metrics and numbers then it is hard to really get an idea of the direction the school wants to go.”  

By mid October, all of those factors had been met. On Oct. 17, 2021, Gibbons announced a significant update in the school’s safety plan: that the school would be moving to Condition II, meaning that masks were now not required, simply recommended. This announcement was monumental, as SLUH became the first school within the St. Louis region to relax its mask mandate. 

“It was really nice to see everyone’s faces. I don't really know exactly what it was but SLUH just felt like it did freshman year that week,” said junior Brendan Schroeder. “The school just felt overall more relaxed and welcoming when you could see everyone’s faces.” 

The adjustment to mask recommended was a short lived one, however after KMOV aired a story on made SLUH’s shift public and led to conversations between the administration and the Archdiocese and the City of St. Louis Health Department. That following Sunday, Gibbons announced that the school would be returning to Condition III and mandating masks once again for the foreseeable future. 

Initially, the school said that it was intending to enter into a partnership with the city and partake in a study for St. Louis University about the effectiveness of masks. However, due to the Omicron variant and the surge of cases, the study was canceled and SLUH maintained its masks required policy for the remainder of the year and into the second semester. This continuation was meant to combat the Omicron variant and the influx of cases within SLUH and the whole St. Louis community. 

“The big challenge that the Omicron variant posed was what I call the tidal wave or the surge of cases that we saw leading up to Christmas break and thereafter,” said Gilbert. “The weeks after and then the month of January was just an absolute nightmare as far as the number of cases that were coming into, or that were being reported to school.”

In recent weeks, tensions have been growing, as more and more groups within the school community have been calling on the administration to relax the mask mandate. Two weeks ago, SLUH’s Young Conservatives Club formulated a petition which garnered around 350 signatures. In addition, a parent group that dubbed itself Parents for a Mask-Optional Environment hosted a meeting last week to discuss options to petition the school's mask rules. 

However, that same week, the metrics that the school outlined to move to Condition II were met. As of publication, the regional positivity rate of St. Louis City is currently 9 percent and an R-naught factor is 0.67. Within the school, there has only been one positive Covid case in the past 16 days, and zero in the past week. Currently, almost 100 percent of the faculty and over 93 percent of the student body is vaccinated. As a result, this past Sunday, Feb. 13, Gibbons announced in his parent connect that the school would be adjusting to Condition II once again.

“There are no schools in the region with internal rates like ours,” said Gibbons. “Despite the complexities of SLUH, our size and other such potential challenges, we have been doing a phenomenal job containing Covid and that's why we're shifting to a mask recommended policy.” 

The main factor that played into the decision to switch was based on data and ensuring that the pre-set metrics of the safety plan had been met. However, the administration met with a wide range of parties, including students, parents, the archdiocese and the city health department to guarantee that they were making the best decision possible for the school community. 

“We have had many conversations with different parties and these dialogues have been important to kind of help understand these different positions. But certainly we didn’t make a decision based on what one group was saying or what they wanted,” said Gibbons. “Our safety plan has never been tied to the idea that if 70 percent of people want masks to be optional then we will go mask optional. We respond to data, we respond to conditions on the ground.”

The announcement was met with much praise from the student body, with many showing their support for the move to mask optional. 

“I think it is great that we are moving to Condition II, I feel like we are finally making progress with how we wear our masks and what we should be doing,” said junior Joel Miller. “I hope that they keep it in place.” 

“I don’t think there is a need for masks anymore,”  said sophomore Gus Bohac. “Most people are vaccinated and cases are down so right now I just don’t see the need.” 

However, a few students still voiced concern that the school should wait until the Omicron wave is more fully depleted or until Spring Break when there will be more opportunities to be outside. 

“I think there is still a city mandate so I don’t understand what has really changed since last time because I thought we were breaking the law,” said JP Torack. “I know we have very high vaccination numbers but I think it may be a couple weeks too soon because we are still at the end of the Omicron wave and temperatures aren’t quite warm yet.” 

The administration is aware of the tensions and disagreements that are a result of discussion of the masking policy. Student Council vice president and Ismael Karim and  president AJ Thompson made an announcement at the end of the day on Wednesday asking students to have empathy when interacting with all students, no matter their masking choices. 

“People can have very hard feelings and very strong feelings about masking, but we want our community to be a welcoming one,” said Gibbons. “We want to have a community where people of all views and experiences on this can come together.”

While masks may no longer be required, the school is continuing many of its safety measures as dictated by the safety plan. Measures include making all visitors to campus wear a mask and students interacting with visitors must also wear a mask for the duration of their interaction. For the foreseeable future, temperature screening will continue, along with the Visit-U check-in process, but these health measures will be reassessed in the coming weeks.

“This does not mean pull the plug on everything, that we can just shove everything off the table,” said Gilbert. “Even though we are moving to mask-recommended, for the rest of the school year there are still some safety measures in place.

As the school transitions into this new phase of the pandemic, administrators are hopeful that the school will be able maintain its mask recommended policy and eventually move to Condition I. 

“Our community's response to the pandemic has been very responsible, very communal, despite the fact of strong disagreements that are out there,” said Gibbons. “We come together daily as a community to work toward a common good. Our formation is impactful and seeing the next step of the condition to be actualized is great.”



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