Written by Madison Scott and Caroline Birdwell.
Arkansas’s statewide mask mandate expired Tuesday, March 30, after Governor Asa Hutchinson announced the decision at a press conference. In response, the University announced some adjustments to COVID-19 protocols.
Mask-wearing will still be required in classrooms, chapel and indoor common areas, according to Harding Executive Vice President David Collins, who is chair of the on-campus COVID-19 task force.
In an email sent to students on Wednesday, March 31, Dean of Students Zach Neal announced adjustments the University would be implementing. These adjustments include allowing guests in residence halls, allowing campus organizations to gather without special permission, combining chapels to only meet in the George S. Benson Auditorium, and the option to remove masks in residence hall rooms or office meetings if individuals are 6 feet apart.
“We are very thankful for your patience and continued compliance with our campus COVID-19 protocols,” Neal said in the email. “Isolation and quarantine numbers have remained low for our students, faculty and staff throughout the spring semester and an increasing number of employees and students are receiving the vaccine.”
According to Collins, based upon self-reported and other anecdotal information, they estimate that around 60% of employees have received the vaccine. The majority of these are believed to fit the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) criteria for being fully vaccinated. Collins also said he estimates that as many as 1,000 students have received at least one dose of the vaccine, but the majority of those likely will not fit the CDC criteria for full vaccination for another few weeks.
On Wednesday, March 17, David Ross, assistant vice president of human resources, sent an email to employees updating mask policies for those who are vaccinated. Ross said that following the CDC and Arkansas Department of Health’s updates to mask-wearing protocol for those who have been vaccinated, employees are allowed to gather in small groups for meetings and remove face masks if all individuals in the meeting have completed the vaccination process. Ross said the directives did not apply to the classroom, chapel and other public spaces on campus.
Prior to the University’s March 31 announcement, some faculty addressed mask-wearing protocol for their personal classroom settings. Dr. Nathan Henton, associate professor of English, told his classes following Texas’s mask mandate removal March 10 that regardless of what the University or state decided, anyone who entered his classroom was required to wear a mask.
“It really comes down to spiritual mandates,” Henton said. “It’s loving neighbor as self … I do wear a mask because I’m concerned for myself, sure, but I also wear a mask even at times when I don’t necessarily need to because I’m trying to express to others that I care about them and that this is my way of ‘loving neighbor as self’ and ‘caring for the least of these.’”
Sophomore Abbi Rockwell said the University’s response to lifting the mask mandate was confusing in its delivery.
“It [seemed] as though [Harding was] skirting around the actual mandate of wearing masks,” Rockwell said. “They didn’t outright state, ‘Masks are still required on Harding’s campus,’ which might be confusing for some, or seen as a green light for those who do not desire to wear masks.”
The new changes in Arkansas and at Harding may bring opposing views, but some students think Harding’s guidelines are sufficient for the time being. Junior Cody Porter said he is glad Arkansas has lifted the mask mandate and that the University guidelines reflect it, to an extent.
“Based on Harding’s COVID situation, I am glad they have loosened some of the restrictions,” Porter said. “I have no concerns with the new guidelines and would be more than happy if the guidelines were even looser than they are now … The state no longer has a mask mandate, and I’d be perfectly comfortable if the University didn’t either.”
Senior Rachel Palmer, who does not agree with the state lifting the mandate, said she is hesitantly in agreement with most of the University’s new guidelines.
“I think protecting the vulnerable among us is the most important thing we should do in the midst of such a devastating disease, but I recognize the need for a sense of normalcy in this year that has been everything but that,” Palmer said. “I think the new guidelines are a good balance of recognizing the need for continued caution but allowing more normal activities in light of the COVID data on campus we’ve seen this semester.”
Collins said that the University will continue to discuss COVID-19 regulations as the semester continues, listening closely to health officials and keeping students and employees informed.
“Campus leaders continue to meet regularly and stay up to date on information coming from [the] CDC and the Arkansas Department of Health as we make decisions that are specific to our campus community,” Collins said. “If further adjustments are made during the remaining weeks of the semester, they will be communicated to students and employees.”