Dive Brief: 

  • As coronavirus cases climb in the U.S., more governors and colleges are requiring students to wear face masks while on campus this fall. 
  • Colleges are rolling out campaigns to encourage students to comply with mask mandates, and some plan to discipline those who violate those orders. 
  • However, some administrators aren’t confident students will wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines while off campus. 

Dive Insight: 

Public health experts have increased calls for people in the U.S. to wear masks in public in response to a growing body of research that shows they help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. In turn, more than 20 states now have some type of mask requirement. 

Some governors have specifically ordered college students to wear masks on campus. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, ordered in late June that masks be required on college campuses, though he stopped short of imposing a statewide mandate. 

In Vermont, which also doesn’t have a statewide mask mandate, Republican Gov. Phil Scott likewise announced last week that students and college employees will be required to wear masks on campuses in the fall. Students and employees who flout the rules will risk being fired or expelled, according to a local media report

Public universities are taking similar action. 

Last week, Montana University System’s task force on fall reopening plans recommended that students and employees be required to wear face coverings on campus, though it hasn’t worked out the details about the policy, according to a local media report. The decision was a pivot from the task force’s June plan, which encouraged masks but did not require them. 

And earlier this month, the University System of Georgia also reversed course by requiring students to wear masks in classrooms and other campus facilities. The move followed a Change.org petition demanding the system require face coverings. It garnered more than 8,700 signatures, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported

Not all universities have such requirements. South Dakota’s public universities aren’t mandating masks but instead are hoping to use social media and other platforms to encourage students and others to wear them, according to a local media report

Some college towns are hoping to reinforce statewide mask mandates to help curb the virus’s spread. 

State College, the municipality that is home to Penn State University, is exploring an order that would fine those who aren’t wearing a mask in public spaces, according to local media. And Mankato, a college town in Minnesota, recently passed a mask ordinance after its city council grew concerned that bar patrons weren’t wearing them, the StarTribune reported

College administrators are hoping to implement policies that will help stem the virus’s spread this fall, yet there is “little consensus” among institutions about how they will enforce them, a recent poll from consultancy EAB found. Legal experts are also uncertain about the extent to which colleges can punish those who do not follow these rules.

Some institutions aren’t considering sanctions, while others could ban students from campus for a period if they repeatedly violate the rules. 

Just over half of administrators who EAB surveyed are worried students won’t follow social distancing guidelines while off campus.

There may be cause for concern. After an outbreak of the virus among University of California, Berkeley, students was linked to a series of fraternity parties, college officials wrote in a public message that “it’s becoming harder to imagine bringing our campus community back in the way we are envisioning.”

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