As on-campus COVID-19 cases rise, some Duke professors are requiring students to wear N95 or KN95 face masks—as opposed to cloth or disposable surgical ones—in order to attend in-person classes.
One of these professors is Senior Lecturer of Biology Alison Hill, who is requiring N95 or KN95 masks in the Biology 201L lab.
Hill explained in an email to The Chronicle that the lab is enrolled at full capacity with 16 students, as opposed to 12 students in the previous two semesters, because the University was “not anticipating the current rate of COVID-19 infection.” This full enrollment makes physical distancing in the lab impossible.
This situation concerned Hill, as she worried about the spread of the virus to not only the students but also to the individuals who prepare the labs and teach in them, some of whom have families with young children or older adults.
“Wearing a high-quality mask to our labs is the best tool available to prevent transmission in the absence of physical distancing,” Hill wrote in her email. “The rationale for wearing the best masks available is the same as the rationale for requiring vaccinations; we are trying to do everything we can to protect the health of undergraduates, graduate T.A.s, staff and faculty while continuing to provide an in-person lab experience for our students.”
Sherryl Broverman, professor of the practice of biology, is also requiring this kind of mask for in-person learning.
“Everyone needs to wear a good mask. You should have a N95, KN95, Kf94. Please, no cloth mask,” Broverman wrote in an email to the class.
With this new mandate, some students have concerns regarding access to these masks given the short notice from the University.
There were two polls regarding this issue in the Class of 2024 GroupMe chat on Jan. 19. According to the poll results, not all students have actually received their mask, and some students are against the mandate altogether.
The poll “Do you think professors should be allowed to require N95 masks in class?” received 207 votes in total; 54 said yes, while 153 said no. The poll “Did you receive your N95 mask from your RA?” received 210 votes in total; 169 said yes, while 41 said no.
Housing and Residence Life announced a plan to distribute KN95 masks to on-campus students on Jan. 13, initially planning for students to pick them up from Keohane Atrium before deciding to distribute them through resident assistants and residence coordinators.
Student Affairs announced on Tuesday afternoon that students who live off campus could pick up KN95 masks at the Washington Duke Inn and Bryan Center Landing testing sites until Jan. 28 or until supply runs out.
Sophomore Lindsey Weyent wrote in an email to The Chronicle that students are not opposed to wearing KN95s, because it’s true they are better masks especially with the Omicron variant, but Duke should be providing more of them.
“The information that we needed to wear KN95s came after I, and most other people, got to campus, and with little time to order these masks, and with everyone else across the country also scrambling to buy them (and the worry that the ones I buy will be counterfeit), it’s very difficult for me to get this mask that I now need to go to class,” Weyent wrote.
“Duke should be providing more than one mask, or the class itself should be providing more, if they want us to wear them long-term. Or, they should have let us know much earlier that we would need these masks.”
A Thursday email from Student Affairs states that there is “no way of determining the maximum possible number of safe reuses for an KN95 mask that can be applied in all cases.”
An email to undergraduates Thursday from Duke Student Government noted that DSG is “interfacing with administration to ensure additional masks are secured [as soon as possible].”
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Madeleine Berger is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.