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Two Maryland universities drop mask requirement

Towson University will stop requiring masks to be worn indoors, except in medical settings and settings with preschool-aged children. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

With counties across Maryland dropping their indoor mask mandates, several colleges and universities are following suit and revising their on-campus COVID-19 restrictions.  

Most recently, two universities, the University of Maryland, College Park, and Towson University, announced they would lift their indoor mask mandates. 

UMCP lifted its mask mandate on Monday in congruence with surrounding Prince George’s County, allowing students, staff, faculty and visitors to go maskless in dining halls, offices, residence halls and at athletic events. Students will still be required to wear KN95 masks inside classrooms and labs, the university said in its announcement Friday afternoon. 

“This measure remains in place out of an abundance of caution, given the increased density over a prolonged period of time in many instructional settings,” the announcement read. “Instructors may continue to remove their masks while teaching, provided they maintain 6 feet distance from others.” 

Masks will also continue to be required on university transit and in “patient care” areas, like the University Health Center. Individuals with COVID-19 symptoms are also asked to continue masking. 

Towson University will lift its mask mandate on Tuesday, with masks becoming optional in all areas on campus, including classrooms, offices, university shuttles and buses, residence halls and dining halls. Masks will still be required in medical settings and settings with preschool-aged children. 

The move follows other changes Towson made to its campus safety policies last week, which included resuming hosting on-campus events for third-party organizations, decreasing the frequency of testing for unvaccinated individuals and discontinuing its COVID-19 dashboard. 

These decisions come as Maryland’s COVID-19 numbers drop dramatically following a surge of the highly infections omicron variant of the virus. In Prince George’s County, where UMCP is located, average weekly cases are down to 7.32 per 100,000 residents from 272.54 in early January, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. In Baltimore County, the seven-day average case count peaked at 268.65 per 100,000 residents and has since dipped to 8.06. 

Other institutions, like Salisbury University in Wicomico County, have taken similar steps. The university announced earlier this month that it is no longer requiring students to wear masks in a number of campus buildings including residence halls, the Commons Building and the Guerrieri Student Union. Like at UMCP, Salisbury students must still wear masks in classrooms and certain other spaces, like common areas of academic buildings. 

According to Eli Modlin, the university’s chief of staff, a number of factors were considered in deciding to make changes to the school’s masking requirements. 

“Our university health team, which directs our COVID-19 policies and guidance, had been taken a slow and measured approach looking at national numbers, regional numbers, and numbers locally,” Modlin said. 

These decisions come after the University System of Maryland, to which all three of these institutions belong, released an announcement on Feb. 14 stating that that universities would begin to adjust their COVID-19 mitigation strategies on an institution-by-institution basis.  

“Each USM university has individual authority to implement and adjust COVID mitigation strategies, as guided by the needs of its campus and community populations,” the announcement said. “University decisions are made in close collaboration with local public health authorities. Each university will continue to monitor transmission rates on and off campus and will adjust requirements as needed based on those data.” 

USM has generally allowed individual universities to make their own decisions regarding COVID-19 safety, with the exceptions of a systemwide vaccine requirement and a booster shot requirement for students living on campus. 

Other universities in the state do not plan to drop their mask requirements just yet. 

Johns Hopkins University announced on Friday that it would continue requiring students, employees and visitors to wear N95s, KN95s, or a combination of a cloth mask with a surgical mask when indoors on campus, despite Baltimore city’s announcement that it was ending its indoor mask requirement on March 1. 

“We are heartened by the reduction in both case rates and severe complications requiring hospitalization locally and nationally, and we are hopeful that we will soon be able to relax our mask requirements in a phased manner,” Hopkins officials wrote in a campus communication on Friday. “However, we know that consistent, proper use of high-quality face masks is one of the most effective measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 and given the difficulty of maintaining physical distancing in many university settings, we are taking a conservative approach to relaxing this mandate.” 

The university did make other changes to its COVID-19 protocols; effective immediately, the school will lower its testing requirement to once-weekly testing for asymptomatic students. On March 19, the school will reopen campus dining facilities with no restrictions and will begin to allow food service at indoor events.