By Harrison Neville
There was much speculation at the beginning of the summer of 2021 that the rise in availability of COVID-19 vaccines would allow for what most would consider a more normal school year. Many at UM shared this view.
This turned out not to be the case, and the University of Montevallo, alongside other colleges in Alabama, issued a temporary mask mandate, similar to the restrictions present throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
“The folks who serve on the [COVID-19] task force put in countless hours deliberating, watching the data, watching the science, listening to experts,” said University President, Dr. John Stewart III.
Stewart expressed pride at the way he saw students handling the mask requirements.
“Anytime you make important decisions that affect a lot of people, you are going to hear from both sides, and I certainly have, but I think our university family has, at the end of the day, been very much in concert about the measures we should take keeping each other safe,” said Stewart.
The mandate for this fall included far more exceptions than the previous mandates.
“We wanted to balance safety for our students and give our students some latitude to have some more freedom,” said Dr. Tammi Dahle, the Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs, Dean of Students and chair of the COVID-19 Task Force.
According to Dahle, the mental health of students played a large part in the decision, saying that isolation and loneliness took a toll on the students according to data collected from Counseling Services.
One of the largest changes was the relaxation of the mask mandate in residence halls.
“We really felt like students needed to have some freedom from that in their home,” said Dahle. “We consider students residence halls their homes, and just like I get to go home at night, and I get a respite from a mask, we wanted our students to have that kind of freedom.”
Dahle said that the university would monitor resident halls and would consider requiring mask in the residence halls if there were outbreaks but that the university “really didn’t want to.”
Restrictions around student gatherings have also been loosened. In the previous semester, gatherings were more restricted due to state regulations. There will also no longer be sentinel testing on campus, because the university does not believe that it was of much assistance.
“To be honest with you, we didn’t learn much from sentinel testing or reentry testing from last year…Because it was voluntary, typically people who are compliant with, you know, other things are compliant with sentinel testing, so we’re really just testing the compliant people,” said Dahle
The vast majority of what Dahle refers to as “behind the scenes” elements of the COVID-19 safety regulations remain in effect. These include frequent cleaning procedures throughout campus.
Dahle believes that these policies will be enough to keep the university open throughout the rest of the year. According to her, it would take a catastrophe that she cannot currently imagine, completely overwhelming the campus’s resources enough to lead to a full shutdown like the one that occurred in the spring of 2020.
Dahle explained that she expects the year to be similar to the 2020-2021 school year, and that the university would address small outbreaks as they occur.
Originally, the campus wide mask mandate was set to expire at the beginning of the semester, but due to a rise in the Delta variant, the mandate was extended until at least Oct. 15.
“Given the large amount of community transmission in Shelby County and across the state, the task force believes it would be irresponsible at this time to change our mask requirement,” said Dahle.
Though the university experienced a brief spike in cases during the week of Sept. 6, that number remained below the number of cases at the same time in the fall of 2020.
Still, Dahle warns students that it is important to stay vigilant and remain careful.
“We’re still very much in this pandemic,” said Dahle.
“It has been really, really exciting to see everyone back and trying to do everything right,” said Stewart. “So, what I would say is thank you. Thank you for how well you represent the UM family and have done that for a really incredibly difficult time.”