Bye Bye Face Masks: What do AUC Students Think about the Last COVID-19 Restrictions’ Lifting in Higher Education?

By Ronja Boer, Milan Matthes Kale and Jana Naskova

Collage by Anna Sazonov

Today, on September 27th, more than one and a half years after the very first COVID-19 lockdown, the mask mandate in higher education will be dropped. The optimism felt over the latest COVID-19 numbers has led to several additional relaxations on COVID-19 restrictions: the 1,5 meter distance measure – one of the first rules to be implemented at the start of the crisis – will also be lifted.

While Amsterdam’s risk level has remained “severe” since July 13th according to the Outbreak Management Team (OMT), the new guidelines are national. For UvA and AUC this means campus-life can largely go back to normal. How the AUC students feel about this varies largely, with some being happy to slowly get back to pre-pandemic times and others worrying that the mandates are being dropped too early.

Engy Shaalan, a third-year Social Sciences major at AUC, is among those in the student population who is currently waiting for their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Like many international students who went home this summer, Shaalan was faced with the difficulty of where to get vaccinated and with which vaccine. Not all COVID-19 vaccines being administered around the world are currently approved by the EU, nor has every country been able to make vaccines widely available, leading many students to choose to wait until their return to Amsterdam to get vaccinated.

Engy Shaalan in front of the Academic Building. Photo by Milan Matthes Kale

Although Shaalan is not sure how she will feel after her second dose, she believes that the dropping of the mask mandate is too soon. She mentions how “AUC is a very international community, people travel during the weekends, work outside of the university, hangout freely in the dorms, and are in contact with so many people,” leading to a greater risk of a COVID-19 outbreak, as well as her own safety with the limited immunity of only one dose.

“I am excited. This seems like a step in the right direction.” Other students, like second-year Social Sciences major Jonathan Berg, are ready for the continued easing of the COVID-19 restrictions put on higher education in the Netherlands. Berg believes that this is “a measured approach,” and trusts that when it comes to COVID-19, the Dutch Government knows what they are doing. Individuality is another driving force for Berg, as after so many months of restrictions — which he understands were necessary — the additional freedom feels liberating.

Natalia Zalega, a second-year Humanities student, also feels that the measurements are being lifted too early. Though she is excited to get back to a more “normal” way of living, she understands that it might be difficult for some that do not feel safe enough as of now to go into the Academic Building without a mask. “If in a class for example there are two people who do not feel safe without a mask, then everyone should wear a mask. It doesn’t harm us in any way.”

Natalia Zalega in front of the Academic Building. Photo by Ronja Boer

Zalega continues that accommodating for everyone might be difficult, since opinions on the topic vary, and believes that AUC should not be a place where students feel pressured into either wearing a face mask or not. She believes that encouraging vaccinations could be a good start, but next to that hybrid study options should stay in place for students who do not feel safe yet or are waiting for their vaccinations. 

“Dialogue is super important”, Sasha Sylbing, a third-year Sciences major states on accommodating all AUC students and their needs. For her and her surroundings, suspending the mask mandate is not an issue as the vaccine has created a sense of safety for them. She is also aware that these new guidelines are not specific to AUC but rather a decision the Dutch government made. “What I think of it, as a student, or what AUC thinks of it as an institute really doesn’t influence the policy as much, because it is nationally coordinated.”

Sasha Sylbing in front of the Academic Building. Photo by Ronja Boer

That does not mean Sylbing is unaware of those who are less comfortable than she is. After reading about the resignation of AUC and UvA lecturer Matt Cornell in protest of the university’s loose COVID-19 policies, she realized not all students and staff feel the same safety as she does, which “emotionally brought their perspective closer.”

A clearer stance is taken by third-year Social Sciences major Bregje Sterk. She believes that the lifting of AUC’s COVID-19 measures was justified, and finds that the measures in place before today were “too strict, illogical, inconsistent, and didn’t correspond to current knowledge about the way in which the virus spreads”. “COVID-19 spreads through lack of ventilation in a closed space through aerosols – masks or social distancing do not prevent this.” According to her, “ventilation is the main measure that makes sense”. 

She fully agrees with the removal of the mask mandate and thinks that the negative effects of masks far outweigh the positive. “In the last months I’ve never worn a mask because I fundamentally disagree with its use.” She recounts that many people got angry at her for not wearing a mask in the hallways of the Academic Building. 

Sterk finds it very contradictory that the AUC community’s spirit of tolerance, equality and inclusivity does not apply to people who hold anti-mainstream views in regard to COVID-19. “This sense of acceptance and respect for diversity, which are important values to many of my peers, does not seem to apply to those that hold controversial views with regards to the current COVID-19 situation.”

As of now most students seem to plan on going without a mask, whether they agree that the restrictions are being relaxed too early or not. The prospect of living in a world without COVID-19, even if that is not yet reality, seems to excite students to the point that some ignore their worries or even feel pressured to follow the majority. With regard to the changes on Campus UvA highlights President of the Executive Board Geert van Dam on their website stating that “when the latest relaxations take effect, it will be even more important for us to show consideration and understanding for each other on campus.”

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