Dordt removes mask mandate, goes against CDC guidelines

Sam Landstra—Co-Chief Editor

Contributed Photo

On the morning of Monday, April 5, freshman Annika Rynders woke up to a different-looking Dordt University. On her masked walk to class through the Ribbens Academic Complex, she passed by a significant majority of students and faculty without the CDC-recommended piece of fabric. And, as she took her seat in the middle of her EDUC-145 class, she waited anxiously for her professor to announce masks were still required for the period.

“I don’t feel safe on campus, especially since Monday.” Rynders said. “I don’t understand why it’s occurring right now.”

On the Friday prior, Dordt University announced in an email that, effective Monday, masks were no longer required in classrooms and common areas on campus. This change lifted the longstanding mask mandate in place since the first day of classes this academic year.

“It was sort of a mixed message.” Rynders said, referencing how the university has used the motto “Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, love Dordt” throughout the year in support of their COVID-19 guidelines. “I was upset and frustrated.”

Rynders wanted to advocate for those on campus with underlying health conditions and took her concerns for this demographic to the very top. In a meeting with President Erik Hoekstra, she asked the top university official—who was “very welcoming” to her—how the decision fit into the framework of loving one’s neighbor. Hoekstra replied he did not want to force students to mask if it was relatively medically safe to do otherwise. 

“It wasn’t fully the answer I was expecting.” Rynders said. “I felt kind of ignored.”

Hoekstra is part of the eight-member President’s Cabinet that made the decision to remove the mask mandate. With the COVID-19 task force having dissolved at their own request in early March, the cabinet has since been the primary decision-making team for COVID-19-related matters on campus. 

There are no medical professionals on the cabinet, unlike the task force, but they took into consideration the changes that regional health facilities, including Sioux Center Community Hospital, had made to remove required masking in non-patient areas. The cabinet did not contact local health administrators for this specific decision, which went against CDC guidelines.

With lower COVID-19 case counts in the community, as well as a lower number of students in isolation or quarantine, the cabinet had been looking for ways to “let out some more line” when it came to pandemic guidelines on campus, according to Hoekstra.

That began with renewing dorm open hours in underclass housing the week before. 

They also studied test results from athletics and choir groups returning from off-campus trips. From this population, only two positives were yielded.

“I think that Dordt has done a good job paying attention to both science and community.” Hoekstra said. “Taking everything into account, the cabinet decided it was time to do this.”

In the email sent out to the entire student body, those who had “significant concerns” about the changes were told they could request their professors for masking to continue in their classes. Also, professors were told they should honor such requests.

On the Monday morning when the mandate was lifted, Luke Hawley, an associate professor of English, requested his CORE 180 class continue masking after hearing from his students. From his role as a faculty member, having to navigate masked and unmasked classrooms is what is “most frustrating” about the changes. 

“It’s hard enough at the end of the semester to keep people motivated.” Hawley said. “This feels like a change to the learning environment—and not for the better.” 

Hawley is a type 1 diabetic—a population at a greater risk from COVID-19. He wears a mask to protect himself and others from the virus.

That same day, Hawley attended a listening session for the faculty senate—an opportunity for professors to present potential agenda items to members of the senate. It was his first time. For the first half hour, the well-attended meeting consisted of faculty members asking for reasoning behind the new ruling. There was frustration in the air.

“Nobody really had any clear information about that.” Hawley said. “If there had been a more public conversation, I maybe could 

have come around. But there wasn’t a public conversation. There was an email.”

Hawley is unaware of any faculty who were included in the cabinet’s decision. 

“There’s no way to have faculty involved in all the decisions.” Hawley said. “But it seems like with something like this that is going to affect every single classroom on campus, that seems like a no-brainer.”

In addition to grievances with the communication, others were frustrated with the timing of the changes, given they were enacted with five weeks of the semester left. 

“I don’t know why we couldn’t just make it through to the end.” Hawley said.

Hawley also pointed out the Easter weekend that preceded the first “mask-less Monday” where a large population of the student body left the Dordt community and traveled to their respective home communities across the Midwest—the same type of CDC-discouraged travel that increases the likelihood of COVID-19 cases on campus.

Others in the meeting mentioned the university-held vaccine clinic taking place two days after the changes went into effect. From the moment of injection, it takes two weeks for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine to become fully protective. For the 218 students who attended the clinic, this day comes over two weeks into the lessened restrictions. 

In total, 23 percent of students living on campus have reported receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. This number is three times lower than the 70 percent of students required for Northwestern College to lift their mask mandate.

Hoekstra admits the mode and style of communication “may have caught some off guard” and says he acknowledges the frustrations of the faculty, who were given advanced notice of the change that week.

“I don’t take that lightly.” Hoekstra said. 

For him, though, the lower risk of COVID-19 transmission on campus made lifting the mask mandate an effective exercise in community.

“One of the aims of a Dordt education is figuring out how to live in a world of complexity and live Christianly.” Hoekstra said. “The world is a messy place, and these things have to get navigated. With the availability of vaccinations and the low case counts locally, this seemed a prudent decision.”

The cabinet did not feel particularly pushed by any group on campus to remove the mask guidelines, although there were students, staff, and faculty who had asked whether the mandate needed to remain until the end of the semester. Hoekstra did clarify there was “absolutely no donor pressure” on the decision.  

Hoekstra also noted student weariness towards the pandemic and how some were “voting with their feet” by wearing masks below the nose or not at all, especially in the evenings and on weekends. For freshman, the end of the mandate could mean seeing their classmates’ faces for the first time.

“I can now more readily identify freshman and people I do not generally see, which is a benefit” Kendal Zylstra, interim president for Dordt University Student Government said. “I believe the removal of masks has allowed for a more inviting campus community.”

With the lessened restrictions on campus, Zylstra does not always wear a mask but keeps one on hand for situations where another person may feel more comfortable with him masking. 

“Like most, following guidelines has never been an enjoyment for me, but I’ve strived to follow them to best protect those who are at risk.” Zylstra said.

Zylstra is supportive of the decision made by the cabinet.

“I’ve been grateful to everyone on campus for realizing that masking was an act of community which enabled us to have a good year. It was not too much to give to put a simple piece of fabric over your face.” Hoekstra said. “But I do think they impede relationships between people.”

Rynders wants to be the voice for students who feel otherwise.

“It’s not worth taking the risk in harming the student body.” Rynders said. “I think there is a lot of damage [done] to the Dordt community.” 

Rynders and others do not understand why a more nuanced decision could have come from the cabinet—one that required masks in some places and some that did not. 

With the exception of already-present NAIA guidelines on sporting events, the cabinet “never really thought through” a more selective approach to the changes.

“I just wish it could be simpler for everybody.” Hawley said. “This [mask-wearing] is healthy for people. And yes, it’s annoying. But we do all sorts of things for other people that are annoying.”

Rynders feels similarly.

“It really just comes down to loving your neighbor.”

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