407 Affiliates Sign Open Letter to Change the University of Michigan Mask Policy

A group of 407 faculty, staff, and students at the University of Michigan has sent an open letter to U-M President Santa Ono regarding health and safety concerns in connection to the mask policy. The group is asking to meet with the president to discuss a change that allows instructors to decide if their students should wear masks in class.

“We have written an open letter addressed to President Santa Ono about our health and safety concerns,” Sovoya Davis said, a second-year doctoral student and first-year Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at U-M. “We emailed this letter on Oct. 19, along with testimonials from community members. In addition to the open letter, there is currently a social media campaign. Anonymous testimonials of community members who have been impacted by UM’s current masking policy are being highlighted via Twitter under the hashtag #WhyWeMaskUMich.”

The group believes that the University of Michigan’s current policy has pivoted away from public health measures that slow the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. Specifically, they state that the University’s decision to prohibit instructors from requiring masks in the classroom facilitates mass infection in their working and learning environments.

“As a first step, I would like to see President Santa Ono have a meeting with us to address these health and safety concerns as soon as possible,” Davis said. “Overall, I would like to see a move towards a safer instructional environment, and ultimately a safer community.” 

Current U-M policy outlines that masks are optional for most indoor spaces on the University of Michigan’s campus. Faculty members and instructors cannot require students to wear masks in instructional spaces, including their classrooms, labs, and offices—except in medical facilities. Other universities like Wayne State University and Eastern Michigan allow instructors to decide whether it is appropriate in given certain circumstances to mandate that an entire class wear masks.

“The University of Michigan should change their optional-masking policy to allow instructors to require universal masking in their work environments,” Davis said. “Should the University continue to refuse to permit instructors to require masks, instructors should be allowed to move their classes online in an effort to protect their health.” 

For example, for a student in a class who is immunocompromised (has a weakened immune system),  the instructor would have the liberty to direct the entire class to wear masks to protect that particular student. The proliferation of flu, Covid, and other related diseases in a particular class may also warrant such a decision.

Davis reported that students, faculty, and staff received two emails from Chief Health Officer Robert D. Ernst that was addressed “To All Members of the Campus Community.” Ernst added that rates of respiratory illness are on the rise in our community and pediatric emergency departments and hospitals in Michigan are seeing surges in respiratory illness and are nearing critical capacity. Furthermore, fall Covid levels in Washtenaw country have varied between medium and high. 

“UM’s current policy especially endangers disabled and immunocompromised individuals on campus, who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness or death,” Davis s. “Immunocompromised faculty and students need the people surrounding them in classrooms and other spaces on campus to wear masks. This is a Disability Justice issue…”

Rick Fitzgerald, University of Michigan associate vice president for public affairs, commented on the open letter to change the mask policy. He said the University has developed and evolved its face-covering policy in close consultation with the Washtenaw County Health Department and campus experts in the School of Public Health throughout the pandemic. He added that the University also established a campus public health-infection prevention response and advisory committee to monitor the campus and surrounding community with regard to infectious threats, which is ongoing.

There is not currently a recommendation for mandatory face coverings and the University has no plans to change its current policy, which calls for optional masking. At U-M we continue to encourage wearing masks, especially for those at higher risk of complications and during times of high transmission.  We’ve observed that wearing masks has become much more normal on our campus and in the greater Ann Arbor community,” Fitzgerald said.  

Fitzgerald said the Office of the President has responded to the authors of the open letter. In their response they indicate that the office of Academic Human Resources is the unit with which they should discuss their concerns.

“It’s also worth noting that in the context of a high level of vaccination in our campus community there has been a shift to an individualized risk assessment model for masking recommendations,” Fitzgerald said. “High-filtration respirators (N-95 masks) and surgical masks are now much more easily accessible and provide a very high level of individual protection. These masks are being distributed free at campus COVID testing locations.”