Students describe classroom accessibility in light of Yale’s mask-optional policy
The News spoke to 8 students about experiences with classroom accessibility in the three weeks since Yale implemented a mask-optional policy in all campus spaces.
Ellie Park, Contributing Photographer
This school year has seen the most relaxed COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic began, with optional and self-directed testing, a lift in the mask mandate and an near-full return to in-person instruction.
While many Yalies are enthusiastic about a return to a pre-COVID lifestyle, some immunocompromised and disabled University affiliates say these changes come with marked increase in anxiety — and pose a threat to their safety.
“With the university lifting its guidelines and making it up to the individual, they’re making an already not accessible place less accessible,” Karen Wang ’24, who is a Student Accessibility Services peer liaison, said. “I find it really disturbing that people who don’t mask say that they care for their community, but your actions show you’re working within an ableist framework.”
Masks come off
Masks officially became optional across all campus spaces on Sept. 26.
The email stated several exceptions to the mask-optional policy, noting that masks should be worn during visits to Yale Health, if identified as a close contact, or if one is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. The email did not describe any means of enforcing this policy.
Two Student Accessibility Services peer liaisons, including Wang, told the News that the loosened mask mandate threatens the safety of immunocompromised, disabled and otherwise high-risk students and faculty — especially when some students feel pressured to attend classes when sick with non-COVID conditions.
Wang noted that their Ethnicity, Race & Migration professors have asked students to keep wearing masks in seminars, where professors are able to apply their own discretion.
For some students, mask-free classrooms present educational value. Makayla White ’26 told the News that it can be valuable to be able to see a professor’s face, especially in a language course.
“It’s especially nice in language classes given that we have to look at our teacher’s mouth to learn how to pronounce certain things,” White said.
History professor Hussein Fancy echoed White’s sentiments, adding that he hopes to create “an intimate and intense atmosphere” in his classroom and seeing students’ faces plays an important role.
“Masks make that harder although not impossible,” Fancy wrote in an email to the News.
However, moving to a mask-free environment is not possible for all students or all professors.
Milan Singh ’26 noted the need to keep faculty members — many of whom might be at more risk if they were to contract COVID-19 — safe from illness, hence agreeing with the requirement in classes.
“Some of my professors have asked that we all keep wearing masks in class because they’re older and concerned about their health,” Singh told the News. “I respect that, though I do hope the ones who are not at higher risk will consider allowing the class to go mask-optional.”
For some, like Elizabeth Stanish ’26, the previous policy of mandatory classroom masking felt somewhat performative.
“If I’m going to get COVID-19 at Yale, I’m more likely to get it in my suite or [at] a party than in class,” Stanish told the News.
But, Wang noted, classes are mandatory — parties are not.
“I’m not happy about no masks in classrooms because those are not spaces that students can opt out of,” they said.
Concerns for student health
According to the Yale Health COVID-19 data, since the removal of the mask requirement on Sept. 26, there has been no reported uptick of COVID-19 cases. But while COVID-19 cases are not reported to be on the rise, other forms of illness might be.
Colin Loria ’26 told the News that since the mask mandate was lifted, he has noticed more people coming down with illnesses.
AJ Nakash ’26 described similar trends, specifically noting what students refer to as the “Yale Plague” — or the Yague — cold-like symptoms that health experts say represents the onset of a variety of seasonal viruses.
“I believe that the lifting of the requirement aligned with the rise in the spread of the ‘yague,’” Nakash said. “More students on campus are sick right now and the mask requirement seems to be the main thing that has changed.”
This anecdotal uptick in illness might not be exclusively due to the mask mandate lifting: increased stress from midterms and seasonal allergies may also play a role. Suzanne Castillo ’23 said that in her experience, sickness always seems to spike on campus around this time of year, whether or not COVID-related.
Castillo noted that she continues to wear her mask in class and that she has observed a few fellow students start to double up on their masks since the mandate was lifted. With the mask-optional policy, Castillo also told the News that she has observed noticeably sick peers not wearing masks.
“I would have thought the mentality of, ‘Oh, I’m sick, I should wear a mask’ [would sink in], but for many, it hasn’t,” Castillo said. “Because masks are optional, there’s a certain political connotation to wearing them.”
In an email to the News, Kimberly McKeown, director of Student Accessibility Services, said students can apply individual discretion and that the College offers options for students nervous about catching COVID-19.
“The Yale COVID-19 protocols have throughout the pandemic been based on expert public health advice,” McKeown wrote. “There is no one set of protocols that meets the needs of every individual. The university has options available to students who are concerned about the changes to the COVID-19 protocols.”
In the options McKeown cited, students at increased risk are encouraged to avoid crowds indoors, open windows and doors to improve ventilation, seek specific medication and seek support from friends and family by asking them to vaccinate and wear masks around the individual at greater risk.
Students are also encouraged to wear masks, and the website notes that mask type — and fit — matter greatly in controlling spread.
“While many around you may not be masked, ‘one way masking”’(the wearer masks to protect themselves) with a high-quality well-fitting mask can significantly reduce your risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the website reads. “We recommend masking indoors in classrooms, in crowded settings when you are unable to distance yourself, during aerosolizing activities (like singing, loud or public speaking or exercising) or when you are in a closed space with others for longer durations.”
According to public health research, masks work best if everyone in a crowd is wearing them. When someone infected with COVID-19 wears a mask, a large portion of the particles that they exhale — which are infectious — are unable to breach the mask, which helps reduce viral spread. With fewer viral particles in the air, a potential recipient’s mask is also better able to block those particles that have breached the infected individual’s mask.
Masks also may help curb the spread of other illnesses, as research from Harvard as early as 2013 suggests that masking could reduce flu transmission.
The website that McKeown cited directs students to reach out to Student Accessibility Services for more information on requesting a disability-related accommodation, and it directs faculty and staff to the Office of Institutional Equity and Accessibility.
Lobbying for accessibility at Yale
In addition to masks coming off, other changes in Yale’s COVID-19 policy present challenges for some disabled students.
Many classes have moved to hosting office hours in-person, as opposed to the previously online approach. According to Lisbette Acosta ’24, a peer liaison for Student Accessibility Services, this transition makes office hours “less accessible” for students with disabilities, both mentally and physically.
Wang echoed Acosta’s concerns.
“Anything that doesn’t have a virtual component can be very difficult for people who are immunocompromised or have mobility-related disabilities,” Wang said. “Even if you’re not immunocompromised, we know that another world is possible. We’ve seen it. I don’t know why they’re all in such a hurry to get back to whatever normal used to be before the pandemic, but we’re not ever going to be back there again.”
Some students, like Acosta, have worked to lobby for their classes to feature online office hour options. She noted that this transition happened due to student advocacy directly to the professor.
“I am grateful to have been able to advocate for virtual office hours for one of my classes, which was a result of multiple students sharing how their disabilities affect their ability to participate in office hours, and how virtual office hours would enable them to participate in the class without risking their health,” Acosta wrote. “The next day, we got an email about virtual office hours being hosted once a week. What a win!”
McKeown told the News that students still have virtual options available, adding that SAS had “not received any concerns from students about access to office hours.”
Part of the role of a Student Accessibility Services peer liaison is to support students in advocating for their needs. As Acosta and Wang both noted, it can be “draining” to labor for rights and safety.
Wang stressed the difference between accessibility and accommodation, explaining that accessibility refers to “the standard” and accomodations refer to changes made after concerns are raised.
“So accessibility is something that should be the standard,” they said. “All events in spaces should be accessible to people without disabled folks having to ask for that to happen. When disabled folks have to then ask specifically for things like office hours on Zoom or for the university to put a ramp in a building or look at the elevators, that’s an accommodation.”
They said that students having to advocate for masking or for virtual office hours with their professors is an accommodation, not accessibility. Disabled students said that self-advocacy can be demoralizing and frustrating.
“It is very tiring to be disabled, period,” Wang said. “But to have to also do the work of making spaces more accessible, that’s another level of labor and fatigue that builds up. And sometimes it’s very hard to advocate for yourself, especially if folks aren’t already thinking in the framework of accessibility.”
According to McKeown, accessibility is a “fundamental feature” of the University’s Belonging at Yale initiative. McKeown added that the Student Accessibility Services, SAS is “unwavering” in its work of supporting disabled students and intends to continue expanding Belonging at Yale to identify and respond to barriers that students face.
Going forward, Acosta hopes to find ways to make change.
“The University was not built with accessibility in mind, and I feel hopeful that we can find ways to improve these measures in the future,” she wrote. “The university can and should start by making a disability committee, drawing on the expertise of disabled students and staff here to enact change.”
Yale last updated the number of students in isolation on Oct. 7.