College Loosens Testing, Masking Protocols

On Monday, April 4, the college’s newest Covid protocols went into effect. Community members can now choose whether to wear a mask in a number of spaces that previously required it, and testing has been reduced to once a week.

College Loosens Testing, Masking Protocols
As per the updated Covid protocols, masking is now optional in a number of spaces where it was previously optional. Photo courtesy of Cayla Weiss '23.
As per the updated Covid protocols, students are now only required to test once a week. Photo courtesy of Karen Kang '25.

On Monday, April 4, the college’s newest Covid protocols went into effect. Community members may now choose whether to wear a mask in a number of spaces that previously required masking, and the testing requirement for students has shifted from twice a week to once a week.

According to the March 30 email announcing these changes, which was signed by Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Health Readiness Group Kate Salop, wearing a mask is now optional except in academic instructional spaces, in service locations such as Frost Library’s information desk, when entering and exiting Valentine Dining Hall, and in athletic service locations including exercise rooms. Residence halls and outdoor spaces had already been designated mask-optional.

In the email, students were asked to select whether they would like to test on Mondays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays for the remainder of the semester. Faculty will sign up for one testing day each week, regardless of how frequently they are on campus. Community members who would like to test more frequently are allowed to do so.

The mask policy at any given moment is largely determined by the people around you, the email states. As of April 4, masks are optional in shared workspaces when everyone present agrees, but everyone must wear a KN95 mask if someone with whom they are interacting asks them to do so. KN95 masks are also required in healthcare facilities and at organized indoor events.

Unvaccinated community members are still required to wear a mask at all times while they are indoors.

“The first days felt great to me,” said Poler Family Professor of Psychology Catherine Sanderson on the new protocols. “Obviously it didn’t change my experience in the classroom, in which we are all masked, but I’m giving students the choice during my office hours, and I had my first mask-free office hours visit yesterday.”

Despite the policy shifts, the email affirmed that “Amherst remains a mask-friendly community” and that community members are “expected to have a mask with them at all times.”

Even though many of the new masking protocols are based on individual preference rather than the physical space one is in, Salop was confident that the protocols would be upheld. “It is our hope that, having navigated the past two years of the pandemic together, our community members can have respectful conversations about masking. It’s up to all of us to commit to and accomplish that,” she stated.

The updates to the college’s Covid protocols come after similar changes at several peer institutions. Within the past month, Williams College, UMass Amherst, and Smith College have all at least partially lifted their on-campus masking requirements. On Feb. 28, Williams lifted its masking requirement except, most notably, in classes. UMass Amherst followed suit on March 9, fully lifting its campus-wide indoor masking requirement. And on April 4, Smith joined Amherst in partially lifting their mandate. Meanwhile, the other Five-College schools — Mount Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges — still require masking indoors.

While the college’s shift does align with recent decisions made by peer institutions, and administrators are in regular contact with other NESCAC schools, Salop stated that ultimately Amherst makes decisions “based on what is best for our community” and follows its own timeline.

The new protocols come in the wake of increased debate among students over the mask mandate. Shortly before the protocols were lifted, heated discourse took place in the campus-wide GroupMe AmherstBussin about the safety of removing the mandate. In a poll sent to the chat on March 19, 107 students voted that they would like to see the mask mandate continued, while 79 indicated a preference for ending the mandate.

“I think between some community members there’s definitely that mutual respect. I think in others that definitely does not exist,” Dania Hallak ’24 said. “I don’t think, I’ll be honest, that we can depend on that mutual respect regarding the masking.”

Other students have more positive feelings about the change. “I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I still think it’s a little strict,” said Nikhil Saldana ’25. “It feels like we’re constantly a step behind everyone else.”

The announcement also noted that these updated protocols depend on cases remaining low, and that the college is prepared to make adjustments if circumstances shift.

“My hope is that eventually we will return to pre-pandemic life, but I’m also mindful that different members of the campus community have different reactions to such changes. I don’t have any pre-existing conditions, I don’t live with medically vulnerable people, and I don’t have young kids who can't yet be vaccinated,” Sanderson said.