Universities need to have mask discussion, says UNSW deputy

Campus reopening plans not such a hot issue Down Under, but key questions still need to be resolved

August 18, 2020
Wearing a mask in Sydney
Source: iStock

The degree to which Australian universities have opened up mostly reflects the prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, with more on-campus activities available in jurisdictions such as Western Australia and Tasmania than in states on the eastern seaboard – and Victorian campuses once again closed to most students after a resurgence of coronavirus cases.

Similar circumstances apply across New Zealand, where a resurgence of cases in Auckland forced the reimposition of stricter lockdown measures than elsewhere in the country.

Across the region, most universities have adopted standard safety measures such as social distancing, hand hygiene and signing into class. Few universities have mandated the wearing of face masks.

That could change as research findings endorse face masks as a safety measure and their use becomes more prevalent in the community. “We need to have that discussion because our scientists have shown how effective they are,” said UNSW Sydney deputy vice-chancellor Merlin Crossley.

However, measures to open up campuses have not been hotly debated, for several reasons. One is that even in states with few active coronavirus cases, universities must maintain parallel online services for the tens of thousands of international students stranded offshore.

Australian students tend to enrol in nearby universities, unlike their counterparts in the US and the UK, where many people travel further to study, and semester two is already under way on most Antipodean campuses.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Back to class not a big topic, but face masks an unresolved issue

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Reader's comments (1)

Mask wearing to protect vulnerable, and not so vulnerable, staff is a good idea, students however will be doing what they do as usual, so masks won't do a lot for them per se. Though wearing a mask whilst out in local communities might just stop the Universities getting total blame for spreading it, town & gown relationships will be strained if not broken otherwise. The bigger problem is what sort of 'mask'? Some UK Universities are buying non-PPE 'face coverings', they are being sold as 'UK SAFE' to issue to students, 2 of them to be washed at 60°C and dried daily for reuse. Data from testing suggests these will sort of work, until saturated, when the mask will likely become, if the wearer in infected, a super emitter of finer infectious aerosol particles.

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