Winona State no longer requiring face masks for first time in two years

Winona+State+University+having+the+highest+rate+of+vaccinated+students+in+the+Minnesota+State+system%2C+according+to+President+Olson.+The+Winona+area+is+also+now+recognized+as+a+medium+COVID-19+level+by+the+CDC%2C+which+does+not+explicitly+advise+mask+wearing+indoors.

Carolyn Hauschild

Winona State University having the highest rate of vaccinated students in the Minnesota State system, according to President Olson. The Winona area is also now recognized as a medium COVID-19 level by the CDC, which does not explicitly advise mask wearing indoors.

McKenna Scherer, editor-in-chief

Winona State University President Scott Olson announced the removal of the school’s face mask requirement on March 3, 2022, days prior to the start of spring break.

The mask requirement lift was a culmination of several factors, including Winona State having the highest rate of vaccinated students in the Minnesota State system, according to Olson’s announcement. The Winona area is also now recognized as a medium COVID-19 level by the CDC, which does not explicitly advise mask wearing indoors.

The initial announcement was only for Winona State’s main campus in Winona but has since been extended to the Rochester campus.

The evening prior to Monday, March 14, the first day of classes after spring break, Olson sent another email, subject lined, “Navigating Our New Masking Guidance”. Olson acknowledged the mixed feelings regarding the mask requirement lift and the timeliness of it.

“When you return to campus this week after Spring Break, you will no longer be required to wear masks in public areas on campus. I know this is welcome news to many of you after two years of mask-wearing! At the same time, please understand this is not welcome news to everyone. Some of your fellow students and some WSU employees may have compromised immune systems or other concerns,” the announcement stated.

Olson continued, encouraging Winona State community members to wear their masks in public areas for the “first week after Spring Break” which he also said he would be doing.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not ended. It will be with us for a long time, perhaps forever like the flu… Remember – Viruses may come and go, but kindness is here to stay,” Olson stated.

Several Winona State students shared a variety of thoughts and feelings, likely reflecting the mixed feelings across the university’s community.

Fourth-year student and President of the College Democrats club, Erich Schultz, said he felt the mask requirement lift was done too early.

“It was done prematurely. The smartest thing the university could’ve done was at least waited 2-4 weeks after spring break ended to end the masking policy… I’m not against ending it, the timing was just off,” Schultz said. “We will be back in masks soon enough I’m sure.”

Megan Chaffee, a fourth-year history and social studies student, agreed with Schultz’s statement as well.
“Personally, I do agree that this should have been delayed until after the incubation period for break. That being said, I also don’t think wearing a mask is bothering me at all. I continue to wear mine about 90% of the time indoors, and I will likely do so past the two weeks after break,” Chaffee said.

However, their sentiments are not unanimously shared among Winona State students.

Fourth-year student Kaylee Mtanous said regardless of the school implementing a mask mandate or not moving forward, it was not being enforced and felt masking should be a personal choice at this point.

“The reality is that regardless of the policies, they are not enforced the way they should be. When was the last time you saw a professor kick a student out of class for not wearing a mask properly or at all? I am sympathetic to those who are within the vulnerable populace or have loved ones within that same realm, but the reality remains that as best as we try to enforce it, these risks are still in effect regardless of campus mandates,” Mtanous said.

Winona State’s Health and Wellness Services will continue to offer COVID testing and vaccination clinic sites on Main Campus as well as continue promoting certain guidelines like physical distancing and reminders about quarantine and isolation, among other topics.
Winona State’s Health and Wellness Services will continue to offer COVID testing and vaccination clinic sites on Main Campus as well as continue promoting certain guidelines like physical distancing and reminders about quarantine and isolation, among other topics. (Carolyn Hauschild)

Mtanous continued, explaining while she has received the COVID vaccine and booster shot, the risk of contracting COVID would exist regardless of campus mandates.

“The way I see it, students still have the option of wearing masks if doing so makes them feel safer and more comfortable within the WSU community. Further, they have the option of still taking online classes or simply deferring their higher education as they deem fit. That said, I personally feel that COVID is comparable to the flu, that is, given its transmittable nature and the death rate,” Mtanous said.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, also said they felt masking on campus was “ineffective.”

“I believe the masks were ineffective, because many times I would come into class or a space inside on campus, while seeing many people that were not properly wearing their masks and no one would correct them politely,” they said. “…To learn, be safe, and feel healthier, I think WSU could have done a better job at educating people with kindness and firm reminders from professors and faculty giving them without judgement.”

Winona State’s Health and Wellness Services will continue to offer COVID testing and vaccination clinic sites on Main Campus as well as continue promoting certain guidelines like physical distancing and reminders about quarantine and isolation, among other topics, according to Health and Wellness Services employee, Amy Nelson.

Nelson, a 2020 Winona State graduate, was offered a position with Health and Wellness Services following an internship with the department. Her job duties primarily center around creating and distributing COVID information, utilizing her studies in graphic design to create infographics and social media content.

“I’ve been able to work with [Health and Wellness Services] on contract since the start of the pandemic, working on their COVID-19 communications. I just kind of developed a little bit of a passion for being able to communicate all these complex things,” Nelson explained.

Among Nelson’s various duties is her work on creating and managing the department’s wellness and COVID blogs, which include how to travel safely during the pandemic, N95 and KN-95 masks, how to quarantine while living with roommates and more.

Nelson also helped work out the framework and details for how Winona State would work through the pandemic.

“There are so many different factors that play into [the decision to remove the campus mask mandate] with all the COVID strategies and efforts that we do, that were given from MinnState,” Nelson explained. “I know we got an email from the chancellor saying that once [Winona State] hits low-to-medium transmission, that we needed to lift the mask mandate.”

The university is also no longer requiring weekly testing for those who are unvaccinated in high-risk groups, like those in athletics and campus housing, Nelson said.

“I personally advocated that I wanted to keep the mask mandate at least in place for one more week after spring break,” Nelson said. “But I’m just one small voice in a room with tons of different stakeholders. Do I think it’s a good thing? Yes and no. Do I think that [the mask requirement] will come back? I don’t know. We just have to watch and see how it goes.”

Vice President of Student Life, Denise McDowell, said the first week without the campus mask requirement left her feeling encouraged and hopeful, although she also recognized the mixed feelings and thoughts by some.

“It warmed my heart to see the smiles hidden behind the mask. However, lifting the mask mandate provided joy for some and concern for others,” McDowell said. “I am encouraged by the kindness extended within our community. Our campus will continue monitoring and adjusting as needed based on MDH (Minnesota Department of Health), CDC, and local health guidelines.”

However, Nelson also pointed out how the graduating class of 2022 will likely affect Winona State’s vaccination rates come fall semester. Moving forward, Health and Wellness Services will continue to offer COVID resources.

“There is still times where you need to wear a mask and I keep trying to remind people, you know, if you’re isolating or quarantining, you still need to wear masks. For those who are at high risk or are immunocompromised, we are recommending that they mask, because you just don’t know,” Nelson said. “We’ll probably have a great summer, things will hopefully be a little bit more normal and in person, but once it comes fall–I have no idea.”

As of Wednesday, March 16, 2022, Winona State had zero reported positive COVID cases among students and employees. Across the Minnesota State system, positive reported cases have continued to decrease since February, 2022.

Winona State Health and Wellness Services’ online resources can be found on the school’s official website, blogsite and their social media accounts including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.