‘It’s not gonna help’: Meet the people refusing to wear masks when they return to uni

‘I know it makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist’

With students on the cusp of returning to campus, universities across the UK have been rolling out firmer guidance on masks and social distancing restrictions to prepare for the start of term. Most unis are requiring masks to be worn in communal areas, in accordance with government regulations. But the University of Sussex announced last week that masks would be required in all in-person teaching scenarios – meaning seminars and teaching groups, as well as lectures.

Other unis are following suit and students are, on the whole, accepting of the new rules. While some still insist on attending parties and refuse to compromise their social lives, the majority are absolutely fine with wearing masks in any instance where it’s deemed necessary.

But that can’t be said for every single student or academic making their return to campus. There are a few quietly (though some more quietly than others) seething about the idea of wearing a mask on campus, and others are deeply anxious at the thought of it. And it can’t be explained away as easily as you might think.

‘I don’t think the areas where I breathe from should be covered’

Some anti-maskers are exactly the people you’d expect them to be. In the process of writing this, I joined three anti-mask groups (Mad About Masks, Say NO to Masks and Anti Lockdown Group) on Facebook. I stumbled across some truly wild anti-mask memes and lots of posts about “compliance” or comments calling people “sheeple”. One of these more zany anti-maskers is Noelle*, a staff member currently working at a university in Scotland. She says the reason she objects to wearing a mask at her uni is because “I don’t think the areas where I breathe from should be covered.”

Noelle is actively trying to get the university rules on masks to change. “Anytime they are writing up the rules…the wording is ‘you must’,” she says. “But I keep requesting they change it to…..’we advise’… due to hidden disabilities. They take it on board and change it. I have also been told I must wear a mask for my job but after conversations with my boss, she says she supports me in not wearing one! I don’t wear one and I am strong-minded enough to take the flack but many aren’t. Where I can influence, I will.”

‘I’m sick of the scaremongering’

Another uni staff member I found within these anti-mask Facebook groups was Lottie*. Lottie works within student accommodation at a university in Brighton, and strongly opposes the idea of masks becoming mandatory at the uni. She says there’s “no solid science” to show that masks do more harm than good, and avoids wearing one as much as she can. “I’ll put a cotton scarf over my nose if someone comes into a communal area”, she says, but only because her teaching union “wouldn’t back me up if I didn’t”.

Lottie is not a virus denier, though. She believes in its existence, and in protecting others, but thinks masks at unis are a step too far. She told The Tab: “I think we should all just get on with our lives while protecting the vulnerable. Cv-19 is part of coronavirus cold family, so it’s unrealistic to aim for a ‘cv zero’ society. We never had a second wave of freshers flu and all types of flu are dangerous to some, but these folk have to be careful 24/7 anyway. I’m sick of scaremongering over this.”

Aside from Lottie saying dubious things like, “We need our country, our rights and our lives back” she made one point which stuck out. “We all need human connection. I worry for the mental health of our students if normality is not resumed asap.”

But do any uni students genuinely believe this? From what I’ve seen, “Wear a damn mask” Gen Z-ers are usually pretty happy about wearing them, and I’d never heard the argument for masks impacting mental health before in my life (which – by the way – is the most 2020 argument in the world. I can’t imagine a plague doctor would have gotten away without wearing his big beak mask in the 1300s even if it made him very very depressed). But as it transpires, these students do exist.

‘I know someone who committed suicide in lockdown, so that’s changed my perspective’

Peter, a uni student in Bristol, refuses to wear a mask at uni and says he’d simply “not go” if he had to. Among Peter’s reasonings for his anti-mask stance are: effectiveness (“scientists have proven the virus can travel through the mask, and they can actually risk increasing the rate of infection because people are reusing them and they don’t get washed properly”), the government’s reluctance to bring them in straight away (“it’s strange the way they’ve gone about it. The lack of consistency.”) and finally, loneliness.

Offhandedly, Peter said to me that his perception of Covid-19 restrictions might be warped compared to other students because “I don’t know anyone that has caught Covid or died from Covid, but I do know someone that committed suicide in lockdown.” Expanding on his loneliness point, he said: “This is the loneliest society we’ve ever lived in – by far. Suicide rates, depression and anxiety are all through the roof and I think wearing masks is only gonna increase that. It’s gonna cause a lot of shallow breathing, disrupted breathing and that’s going to cause a lot of anxiety and stress.”

Moreover, he notes that “seminars aren’t the main place that students interact”. Peter told The Tab: “They’re still going to go out and get drunk, they’re still going to go to pubs, things are going to happen. We need to try and create more normal situations that promote learning and human communication. Having masks on in a seminar isn’t going to prevent the spread at universities. Things like pubs, parties – that’s where the virus is more likely to spread. Whereas a lecture hall, a seminar room – that’s not the riskiest place to be. I think it’s gonna disrupt learning, it’s gonna create more issues than it will solve and I think we need to start moving back to some form of normality.”

And it’s not just students who are predicting disrupted learning. Lecturers have been afraid to speak out against the measures (as one told me, “Because I need to keep my job.”) but some are dreading the idea of teaching in masks – and some have flat out refused. Two Newcastle lecturers wrote a blog post on Lockdownsceptics.org this week entitled, “We Cannot Teach In Masks”. Granted, their point is occasionally lost in phrases like “We cannot in good conscience simply acquiesce in the repurposing of the university as an institution that valorises safety above education, and bare life in preference to the good life” but the point is there. Masks interfere with education. And it’s not just “lockdown skeptics” who think so.

‘There comes a point where masked teaching is worse than online teaching’

Anna*, a lecturer at the University of Warwick, is thoroughly “pro-lockdown” and thought it should have been earlier. Which is part of the reason she hates the prospect of masked teaching. “I will be enforcing the requirement in my classes, but I think it is extremely unfortunate that wearing face coverings needs to be enforced.” She blames the seminar masks rule on a late lockdown, failure to implement a functional track and trace system, and the A levels fiasco which has left UK unis oversubscribed and underprepared.

“There comes a point where distancing, facing forward, and wearing masks is worse than carefully thought out online teaching. This [online teaching] has the potential to be more interactive and actually offers more contact and attention.” Anna believes the decision should have been up to the teachers to decide how to teach – and not “arbitrary targets” set by administrators.

‘If you don’t wear a mask you’re a killer or a conspiracy theorist’

Among those students who would suffer as a result of masked teaching are Jack and Eddie, two brothers about to start uni in Lincoln. Jack and Eddie both have autism and struggle with sensory issues, so the idea of masked teaching is terrifying for them. Patsy, their mum, is scared to send them off to uni for this reason alone. “It’s going to affect their learning because it’s going to be so uncomfortable for them,” she told The Tab.

While masks are encouraged but not mandatory at Lincoln, Patsy worries that her sons will feel the need to wear masks anyway because of the stigma around not wearing a mask. “When people see you’re not wearing one they automatically assume you’re either a killer or a conspiracy theorist. My sons won’t entertain the idea of not wearing one because they feel like they’ll stand out. They’ll be too worried that people will be watching them, or that someone will approach them and ask about it. They would always wear one, because of their autism they wouldn’t do something where they could get themselves into trouble. I could just see them sitting there and suffering through it.”

‘If I don’t wear one, I have to tell everyone about my condition’

Another student who’s worried about the implications of not wearing a mask – even when he’s not legally required to – is Cal*, a third-year at Liverpool who has Asperger’s. Cal suffers from severe hypersensitivity because of his Asperger’s and cannot bear to wear a mask for more than a couple of minutes. While he is exempt from the mask rules (“I carry a card around with me to let transport police and shop staff know about my condition”) he says this alone makes him very uncomfortable. When not wearing a mask he then has to explain why he isn’t wearing a mask and tell everyone about his Asperger’s. “Since starting uni I have told very few people about my condition and I believe that having masks in seminars (and mandatory masks on campus in Liverpool) will mean that I will have to explain my condition to my peers, something which I have avoided doing.

“I know that the policy probably won’t change but I hope that the main takeaway from this is that people have invisible disabilities, and if you see someone not wearing a mask it is likely for good reason, so try not to shame them and avoid questioning why they are not wearing it.”

While some anti-maskers may be tarnishing the stronger arguments, there is something to be said for mask-less teaching. For the sake of lecturers, the quality of teaching, and those who cannot wear masks but also can’t take the stigma of going maskless – an “advisory” mask policy might be the only one where one size fits all.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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