Editor’s Note: Quotes edited for clarity.
UCI Provost Hal Stern announced via email that mask-wearing guidelines changed from “mandatory” to “recommended” on March 19 due to updated guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the California Department of Health (CDPH), despite the Associated Students of UCI (ASUCI) and UCI Associated Graduate Students (AGS) leadership urging against the decision. However, masks will still be required on public transportation through April 18 according to TSA guidelines.
UCI sociology doctoral candidate Canton Winer, a VP of Finance for the executive board of AGS and one of the founding members of UCI Resist, an organization devoted to raising awareness for immunocompromised students, announced in the group’s Discord chat that UCI Admin had been discussing a revision of the mask mandate on Feb. 24.
“I have alarming news: I learned [on Feb. 22] at the AGS meeting that UCI Admin are considering dropping mandatory masking,” Winer wrote.
The AGS meeting centered around COVID-19 with David Souleles, the director for UCI’s COVID-19 Response Team, and Gillian Hayes, the dean of the Graduate Division, who were both invited to speak at the meeting. Souleles presented the data models used to determine the COVID-19 and masking policies, while Hayes focused on academic accommodations.
“One of the main issues we talked about in that meeting was whether masks were going to be around for the rest of the academic year — they didn’t offer that information, we asked them,” Winer said in an interview with the New University.
“[Souleles and Hayes] said to us ‘we’re talking about getting rid of the mask mandate either this month or March, but no decision has yet been made,’” Winer said. “One of the questions I asked was … will graduate student leaders and undergraduate student leaders be consulted if there’s a decision to drop the mask mandate?”
According to Winer, Hayes laughed in response to his question, but Winer did not attribute her reaction as intentional. “I don’t exactly know what was going on inside Dean Hayes’s head, but she basically laughed … I don’t know if I made her uncomfortable. It felt dismissive. Although, again — I don’t know what her intention was,” said Winer. According to Winer, Hayes apologized for her reaction.“She said to me, ‘I’m sorry for the reaction, I’m laughing because Canton knows that [Souleles] and I don’t make that decision,’” said Winer.
“Well, of course I know that [Hayes and Souleles] are not ultimately the people who are making that call … but they have meetings daily with people who are making those calls,” Winer said in response.
Despite any disagreements, Winner said that he appreciated that Hayes and Soueleles continued to answer questions after the time allotted for the meeting.
The New University emailed Hayes for comment about the exchange.
“I don’t recall the details of that exchange specifically, but I recall letting the students know that I do not control what the Provost and Chancellor do, but that I would be sure to pass along the message that AGS leadership would like to be consulted. I did pass that along, and as I understand, the AGS president was consulted,” Hayes wrote.
Another key point of concern for AGS during the meeting was the data used to support dropping the mask mandate.
In the email, Stern cited Orange County COVID-19 data from the CDC, the California Department of Public Health and Governor Newsom’s Executive Order as justification for dropping the mask mandate’s requirement from “mandatory” to “recommended.” Souleles also presented self-reported data models at the AGS meeting based on the UCI daily symptom checker.
“AGS explained its concern on how reliable the daily symptom checker might be. David Souleles then explained that the self-reports are not the data at the top of their list,” AGS President Connor Strobel stated in an email.
“We live in a global society. UCI Administration — as far as we know, because they haven’t been transparent or forthcoming — is just basing their data off of what is happening in Orange County, which is a very limited way of understanding it,” Winer said.
“Social scientists and other scientists who work sometimes with self-reported data are always skeptical … because there are always flaws,” Winer stated. “I would say that the AGS council clearly is skeptical of the CDC’s guidelines. I think anyones who’s actually looking at the data would not take it seriously at this point.”
He also voiced concerns over new COVID-19 waves rising in Europe that could potentially make it to the United States.
Aside from this AGS meeting and a one-on-one Chancellor meeting on March 8, ASUCI Presidents Yoseph Ghazal, Strobel, and Winer agreed that there was little consultation and communication overall between student and UCI administration and believe their efforts were one-sided in terms of discussing the policy for COVID-19 masking.
“In terms of people coming to AGS to talk about [the mask policy change from mandatory to recommended], I don’t believe anyone came to AGS or ASUCI,” Strobel said.
“It hasn’t been a two-way streak, granted … [after January] they have been a bit better about communication, but still nowhere near the level where it should be. On lower levels, the admin does a good job of communication, but the administration at the top are the ones that have no communication with us,” Ghazal said. “They’re responding sometimes to our inquiries, but they are not proactively approaching us, which is what we’ve requested.”
“That’s what consultation means. It doesn’t mean that we have to be the ones to get them to answer questions, but that they proactively come to us,” Winer said.
In an email to the New University, Souleles responded to concerns that student leadership was not being consulted regarding these changes.
“UCI leadership is committed to open communication with student leaders. The offices of the Chancellor, Provost and Student Affairs met with ASUCI President Yoseph Ghazal and AGS President Connor Strobel on March 8 and discussed the campus approach to spring quarter,
including the plan to sunset the requirement for face coverings in indoor settings. Additionally, both Yoseph and Connor received advance drafts of both the campus messages from the Chancellor and the Provost, distributed on March 10.” the statement read.
“[Ghazal and I] are always in meetings. We got the drafts [4-6 hours] before they came out … How meaningful the advance was … I’ll leave it up to you to editorialize,” said Strobel. “The timing caught us by surprise because it seemed like they were still thinking through their decision than was clearly conveyed to us. They did not use the opportunity to have a conversation with the student body about what’s informing this decision.”
Ghazal expressed that he and Strobel wanted to center discussion of the policy around disabled and immunocompromised students when speaking with administration. Originally, student leadership wanted to wait at least two weeks to see how cases would be after spring break.
“[Strobel and I] told them [our feedback], but none of the things we said really were taken into account,” Ghazal said.
According to student leadership, other than the AGS meeting with Souleles and Hayes, the Chancellor’s meeting with Ghazal and Strobel was also one of the only other times administration consulted student leadership about the mask mandate dropping in a comprehensive manner.
The information shared to student leadership included data from the University of California’s Office of the President (UCOP) that backed their decision, which Strobel claimed was not made clear to the AGS and ASUCI bodies.
“Had I or [Ghazal] not relayed that [data] and information that informed the decision to the student governments, they would have been in the dark,” Strobel said.
“[During the meeting] if we hadn’t put masks on the agenda, I don’t know if they would have talked to us about it. That meeting did happen, but they didn’t bring [the topic] to us, we had to bring it to them,” Ghazal said.
The three leaders stressed the importance of centering masking and COVID-19 policy around immunocompromised students, who Strobel stated were being “treated like second-class citizens.”
“In their emails, I don’t think they said the word immunocompromised once,” Strobel said.
“What the administration should be doing is centering disabled and immunocompromised people when they’re making COVID-19 policies,” Winer said.
Both AGS and ASUCI Presidents shared this sentiment.
“If we do that, everyone benefits. Everyone will be safer. We have made this request repeatedly to the UCI Admin and they appear to be refusing to consider doing that,” Winer said.
For now, UCI’s administrative COVID-19 policies updated on March 19 remain in effect.
Helena San Roque is a Campus News Intern for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.