Unmasking Visitors on Campus

The University of Pittsburgh dropped its mask mandate last week, a change that is expected to continue throughout the last few weeks of the school year. With reported COVID cases dropping to a predetermined low-risk level, students, faculty, and guests may now enter University buildings proudly displaying the lower half of their faces after two years of wearing masks. While this may be an exciting prospect, the weekly COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO) emails only display the vaccination and case information for Pitt affiliates, leaving the question: how do guests factor into this plan? 

The number of Covid cases and vaccinations on campus, as reported by the CMRO, does not include any information on the health of guests. Guests are coming by the thousands to visit campus and take tours of Pitt. These guests are not required to prove vaccination, provide a negative test, or report to Pitt if they test positive after taking a campus tour. Now, they are not required to wear masks in University buildings, and Pitt is hosting hundreds of visitors a day. This puts the tour guides and those interacting with these guests at risk.

Since March of 2020, high school students have had to rely on virtual tours or impromptu campus visits in order to determine which university is the right fit for them. To help ease the process, Pitt offers both virtual campus and virtual residence hall tours. The campus tour was the most popular as it took students through the university, stopping at most of the major academic buildings and landmarks known on campus. These tours are overseen by the Pitt Pathfinders—such as myself—who would attempt to do their best at adapting the traditional tour script to fit the needs of the virtual option. 

“Although I didn’t need a tour to commit [to Pitt] because I was already familiar with the campus with my brother coming here,” says Erin Friel, a second-year Public and Professional Writing major, “The second Covid hit, it was clear that it would be impossible. The virtual tours were a good way to get that basic familiarity, even if they weren’t the same.”

Although much of the information given by the Pathfinders on tours was the same in-person or online, many families would later remark that while these virtual tours helped in the decision-making process, they lacked the personal touch of physically being on campus. They found it difficult to get a sense of the overall feel of campus life, or scale the buildings and classrooms you could see on a screen. 

As a tour guide myself, I understood their plight. One of the reasons I decided to come to Pitt was the indescribable feeling I was overwhelmed with when I stepped onto campus. Suddenly, I could envision myself spending the next four years here.

“The tours are the thing that made me commit to Pitt because I fell in love with the campus when I visited,” says Charlotte Pearse, third-year English writing and Public and Professional Writing major, “I definitely would have been more hesitant to visit or tour in this climate.”

Knowing that nothing could compare to the feeling of being on campus, Pitt moved to an in-person option as early as they could. Starting in the summer of 2021, visitors were welcomed back on campus. Pitt kept tours to ten people and held tours exclusively outdoors. Prospective students and parents could peek into classroom windows and get a general sense of the campus while keeping the risk of Covid exposure low. 

Beginning in the fall of 2021, visitors could attend tours at the full capacity that we saw before Covid restrictions went into effect, with the stipulation that visitors were masked inside all buildings. As of Monday, March 28th, Pitt decided to begin relaxing its COVID requirements. Since the Pittsburgh campus is currently designated by the CDC to be an area of low or medium COVID-19 level, masks are optional inside all University buildings. On tours going in and out of buildings, however, masks remain completely optional for unregulated guests.

The tour schedule for the spring of 2022 includes hourly weekday tours with hour-long presentations by admissions officers at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 1:00 p.m. tour slots. The majority of Fridays and Saturdays are blocked off for programs. On these days, hundreds of guests are invited to visit Pitt. They can go on tours, sit in on admissions and financial aid presentations, as well as panels about student life. 

When registering for tours visitors are asked to fill out an array of questions. These included indicating whether any member of their party had recently come into contact with someone with COVID with no apparent follow-up if the student indicated yes. The email confirmation included a line asking students to reschedule if they have signs or symptoms or if they have knowingly been in close contact with someone confirmed or probable for COVID-19 in the last 14 days.

After inspecting the Pitt Admissions Office website, there appears to be a maximum capacity of about 8 hundred guests sitting together in a single presentation room in Alumni Hall before going out on tours. Although all Pitt students, faculty, and staff have been required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved exemption since December 6, 2021, this mandate never applied to visitors. 

“I am not overly concerned with COVID, but knowing that they’re not required to be vaccinated is slightly concerning especially since they’re all sitting together,” says Meghan, a first-year psychology and philosophy major, who chose not to use their last name, “it might not necessarily cause an outbreak, but there’s definitely more potential with less information.”

The reality is, with cases declining steadily, many students are taking advantage of these lessened restrictions. I have observed anywhere from half a class to an entire class choosing to not wear a mask, and interviewees such as Meghan find it unnecessary with the majority of the Pitt population being vaccinated

For the Pathfinders that find themselves face to face with these unknown visitors on a regular basis, there is still a feeling that those who are vaccinated and received their booster are well protected, but there is room for improvement in these visitation requirements. 

Nick Johnbosco, a 21-year-old fourth-year Biology and Music major and a Pathfinder at Pitt, says, “I would like to see the requirements be that (visitors) have at least the first shot of the vaccine and that information be disclosed to the tour guides so that we may better protect ourselves while we give tours.”

After spending roughly three years giving tours at Pitt, I have fallen in love with the campus and all of the people that call it home. The removal of the masking requirement has allowed people to regain a sense of normalcy within their college experience that has been sorely lacking since the beginning of the pandemic. With this, though, there is a need to ensure the safety of the students, faculty, and staff. Prospective students and their guests should be welcomed on campus provided that they follow the same safety procedures required for all current Pitt students.

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