Shifting mask requirements trigger conflict at SSU | News

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SALEM — A large portion of Salem State University’s campuses are now subject to flexible policies that allow students to choose whether to wear a mask.

But students are still expected to mask up in the classroom until Monday, March 21, and the situation has caused the local teachers’ union to file a grievance against university administration in a bid to slow the process.

The school this week relaxed mask policies for most on-campus indoor areas, including building lobbies, hallways, lounges, meeting rooms and offices, university president John Keenan wrote in an email to the community. The move comes as COVID-19 infection rates continue to drop and the scientific community begins to shift its policy recommendations.

It also comes as the university celebrates very high vaccination rates, with 95% of all students, 97% of those living on campus, and 97% of faculty having received at least a whole vaccine regimen not including boosters, according to Elisa Castillo, assistant dean of students for wellness.

“We find that now, based on all the metrics, we’re in a place that would be considered low-risk, and I know that’s confusing because the CDC changed criteria a few weeks ago,” Castillo said. “But all the health experts are indicating the risk is low and we’re now entering a phase where it’s OK to have more options.”

The conversation is playing out as other communities and their K-12 school districts have already relaxed standards, or expect to soon. But that also is complicated, as the Salem School Committee voted 5-2 on Monday to relax mask requirements in all classrooms from kindergarten to grade 12. Mask policies remain in effect in areas serving preschool-aged children due to vaccine access.

In that meeting, committee member Kristin Pangallo said the scientific community doesn’t have a solid consensus on whether mandates can safely come down this month.

“It just isn’t as clear. The science is limited,” Pangallo said. “We don’t have enough information. We’re creating this knowledge as we’re working through it.”

The situation at Salem State has created another rift between professors and administrators. The Salem chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association, representing professors and librarians, filed a grievance on Feb. 22 over what it viewed as a rapid departure from masking policies.

The union wrote that Keenan notified the group on Feb. 17 of an impending change “of the mandatory mask requirement.”

“He agreed with the chapter leaders’ request for a slower, thoughtful, data-driven plan and indicated that Corey Cronin (assistant vice president of marketing and creative services) would send out an email inviting members of the campus community to give input,” the grievance reads. “Nevertheless, the following day, he sent an announcement giving SSU community members the right to choose whether to wear masks on campus.”

Tiffany Chenault, president of the Salem MSCA chapter, said the union isn’t looking to bargain or strike a new memorandum of understanding as it relates to COVID-19 policy.

“What’s missing is the process,” Chenault said. “We keep asking, ‘What is the process? What are the steps? You keep talking about data, the rates, the sewer water… fine, but how is this going to be implemented?’”

One example of the issue, Chenault said, can be seen in science labs, where students typically work within 6 feet of each other.

“We still have, in some of the buildings, poor air quality and ventilation, buildings without windows,” Chenault said. “That’s why I’m pushing… let’s have a community discussion. Let’s discuss a process.”

That request was heard by the university, as Keenan wrote on March 4 that the university would give more time to plan how the changes will play out in classrooms.

“Members of our community have posed questions regarding protocols and best practices for how to implement this masking change safely,” Keenan wrote. “In an effort to address these concerns, we will be waiting until Monday, March 21, to transition classrooms to a mask-flexible environment. This is the Monday after spring break. During this period, there will be opportunities for community members to ask their questions.”

Chenault said Keenan “has been on the science, and that’s fine. But we still need to have a conversation.”

Rita Colucci, Salem State’s general counsel, said grievances over the issue “are going through the usual process. There are several steps in the grievance process, and that’s what’s happening now.”

“One thing we agreed on is if we were going to change the mask policy in any way, we’d give five days notice and give an opportunity to ask questions,” Colucci said. “That was all done. The grievances will go through the process.”

The university dispatched another message to the community Wednesday, saying mandates would be lifted March 21 “in most parts of campus, including classrooms, with the following exceptions.” The message then listed public transportation, health care settings like counseling and health services, and “certain large, high-density indoor campus events depending on organizer requirements” as still requiring masks.

The university has also ordered batches of KN95 masks to distribute to students and faculty, with an initial batch of 5,000.

“We’ll continue to provide them for the next several weeks, while our supplies allow,” Castillo said. “We want folks to be comfortable. We want folks to feel protected. We just want folks to have the options.”

The grievances, meanwhile, have done their job, according to Chenault. That includes a meeting with faculty happening this week, and the fact that the classroom date moved to March 21 so the university can get more input. An internal survey of union members, with 123 responses, had only 26% of responses in support of relaxing policies, while another 28% were unsure and the remaining 46% were opposed.

“We aren’t anti-mask, or the policy. We just want the process, to understand what it means, and want him to at least have some empathy about how faculty feel about this, because some are upset and worried, and we have others that are like, ‘it’s fine. That’s fine,’” Chenault said. “A grievance was filed. We took it to step one. We’ll see where it goes.”

Contact Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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