Everything you need to know about DePaul’s latest COVID-19 guidelines, plus an analysis of campus cases and insights from professors and university advisors.
Editor’s Note: This story was first reported in 14 East’s newsletter, “In The Loop,” which sends city and campus news to your inbox every Monday night. You can subscribe for more breaking stories and original features – before they hit our site – here.
Over the last two quarters, a variety of new COVID-19 guidelines were established by DePaul’s administration.
As of April 11, masking on campus is no longer mandatory for the university community. Additionally, masks won’t be required for graduation ceremonies this June and neither will proof of vaccination for guests to attend.
As a whole, Chicago’s and Illinois’ COVID-19 restrictions over the past two years have loosened quickly, only to be reimplemented later on, much like the university’s guidelines.
So how did we get here and what can students expect next for COVID-19 guidelines on campus?
DePaul’s Latest Guidelines
On March 18, university officials announced masks would only be required in classrooms and labs for the first two weeks of Spring Quarter.
Now, the university has switched to a fully “mask-optional” policy.
While masking on campus is still strongly encouraged for indoor spaces, according to the most recent announcement, “departments and community members cannot require others to wear a mask.”
For instructors — who largely enforced the mask policy and other protocols in their classrooms over the past year — the decision elicits mixed feelings.
“I’m not sure exactly how they arrived at this specific decision [to go mask-optional] … but I don’t question any of those decisions,” said William Chin, a tenured professor in the Mathematical Sciences Department. “The mask policy is not really controversial from what I see.”
According to university officials, the decision was made by reviewing city and campus COVID-19 data, guidance from public health departments and the “perspectives and recommendations of DePaul’s Community Health Team and the university’s medical advisor.”
Kim Amer — an associate professor of nursing and member of the Community Health Team — said the team meets every two weeks over Zoom to advise administration on COVID-19 policies like masking.
“It’s a pretty open discussion type of committee, and everyone’s voice is welcome,” she said.
Gene Zdziarski, vice president for Student Affairs, Cheryl Hover, associate director of Emergency Management, and Amer all noted the Community Health Team is made up of student, faculty and staff representation as well as other department members.
According to Amer, the team discusses new policies and relevant complaints on campus and then votes on decisions much like the Faculty or Staff Council would. This input is then provided to senior leadership, Zdziarski and Hover said in an emailed statement.
COVID-19 Concerns On Campus
While DePaul follows the city’s broader COVID-19 response plan, community responses to COVID-19 protocols for students, faculty and staff vary widely.
Communications instructor Kristen Pengelly is concerned that positive case rates “will go up exponentially” following the mask policy change.
“I have not heard of administration gathering opinions of people who are often in ‘large’ on-campus gatherings (i.e. class, labs, etc.) before making and sticking with this decision,” she wrote in an email to 14 East.
In particular, Pengelly said she’s noticed students and faculty with care-giving responsibilities, those at higher risk of severe illness and people living in communities that’ve been most impacted by COVID-19 voice the most concern.
Amer said from what she’s heard at meetings, students were more hesitant than other groups on campus to lift the mask mandate.
Many professors interviewed for this story said they would personally continue masking in their classrooms.
“I’m going to continue to wear a mask, partly because in one of my classes there is pretty close contact between students, in close proximity,” said Chin.
Assistant Professor of Geography Michelle Stuhlmacher said that several of her students expressed similar concerns about their classroom size and, prior to the policy change, asked her to encourage the rest of the class to continue wearing masks.
“All students wore their mask in [my] class today and no one had any concerns or complaints about continuing to mask,” Stuhlmacher said on Wednesday, April 13.
Outside of her classes, Stuhlmacher reflected on the personal impacts COVID-19 has had on her life.
“My family’s health has been impacted by COVID and I’d like to do what I can to keep from catching or spreading it,” she said.
Overview of Campus Protocol Changes
However, this is not the first time DePaul has switched its policy — among other COVID-19 guidelines — to encourage, but not require, indoor and campus masking.
In June 2021, university administration first changed the mandatory masking policy from Spring Quarter to an optional model for those who were vaccinated at the time.
As part of the “Reopening Phase V Guidance for DePaul” and updated city guidance, DePaul activities during the summer only required mask-wearing if students were not vaccinated. Similar to current policies, the university promoted itself as a “mask-friendly campus” under its Take Care DePaul initiative.
On June 23, the Community Health Team published a list of frequently asked questions, noting “to support DePaul’s aim to be a mask-friendly campus, vaccinated people who still want to wear a mask for their personal comfort are more than welcome to do so. The DePaul community is expected to support individuals’ choices.”
Protocols on vaccination documentation on campus have also evolved over time.
Before the return of in-person classes last fall, university decisionmakers discussed a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for weeks, finally announcing student vaccine shots would be required for Fall Quarter on April 21, 2021.
Prior to this announcement, faculty and staff were not required to get vaccinated.
For several months afterwards, faculty and staff lacked an official policy mandating COVID-19 vaccinations until the July 26 update stated “the university will require all employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by September 3.”
“I remember when we took the vote to mandate vaccinations for everyone, I felt really good about it,” Amer said. “Sometimes we [the Community Health Team] bend to accommodate … to make everyone happy, or to make sure that no one’s affected or upset. But in this case, it was just kind of a no-brainer, for lack of another word.”
The list of protocol changes may seem never-ending two years into the pandemic, but several factors may help DePaul community members to understand the decision making process.
Breaking Down COVID-19 Data at DePaul
For nearly every update, university administration have cited local COVID-19 positive case rates, state, city and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, as well as the input of task forces like the Community Health Team and DePaul medical advisors as reasons for its many changes in protocols.
To understand more, 14 East reporters have tracked on campus COVID-19 data, covered perspectives of those left out of the decision-making process and compiled relevant resources nearly every week, sometimes multiple times a day.
In January, the highest case count was recorded during the first week of in-person classes after two weeks of remote learning following Winter Break. By the start of Week Five, 149 cases had been reported for the quarter, with reporting taking off during the week prior.
DePaul now has the second highest number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus so far in a quarter with 145 reported and confirmed cases added to DePaul’s COVID-19 Dashboard since the beginning of Spring Quarter on March 28. In the past two weeks, 67 cases have been reported alone, with the most cases reported in one week, 56, taking place in the second week of the quarter.
A month ago, the DePaul administration began reducing masking requirements on campus, with masks only being required within classroom and lab settings. In the week immediately following Spring Break, there were fewer positive COVID-19 cases recorded on campus than the weeks prior, but cases quickly spiked soon after in spite of the mitigation attempts.
The Omicron variant, interstate travel over the holidays and decreased protocols all play a role in how COVID-19 is affecting the DePaul community and the city as a whole.
Amer added that data across the country via public health departments may not always be the most accurate way to quantify health outcomes during the pandemic.
“When we see that cases are going down, it may, in fact, be that there will be tenfold more than is being reported by the CDC or by the health departments because people are doing home testing, and they don't always … call in to the Department of Public Health,” she said.
In the near future, it’s uncertain whether new waves of COVID-19 infection could cause DePaul to reimplement local policies like a mask mandate or online learning.
However, Amer said DePaul largely aligns its policy with that of the city. “If we vary from [Chicago’s COVID-19 policies], we really had to have a rationale,” she said.
“The other thing that's hard, I think, just for everyone, throughout this whole pandemic, is that no one really knows what's going to happen next,” Amer said. “People are very uncomfortable with that.”
Editor’s Note: The original story included phrasing and structure that misrepresented the decision by Assistant Professor of Geography Michelle Stuhlmacher to encourage mask wearing in her classes. Stuhlmacher was asked to encourage masking in her classes by several students in her class who were uncomfortable with the idea of other students not wearing masks following the April 11 policy change. The placement and phrasing of text has been corrected to contextualize this decision more accurately.
Header illustration by Helen Wargo
Graphics by Cam Rodriguez