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The Daily Tar Heel

Editorial: In the return to in-person instruction, N95 masks must be accessible

Students exit their in-person classes on UNC's campus on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.

By Feb.10, almost all UNC classes will have resumed in-person instruction, a requirement the University announced in a campuswide email on Jan. 27.

Although North Carolina’s infection rates are indeed down after the holiday season, the omicron variant remains a threat to many students who are immunocompromised, high-risk or interact with people at risk, like children who still cannot get vaccinated.

Many classes can still be attended remotely, but students viewing the livestreams will be unable to engage in discussions or ask questions. As a result, many people who would rather not attend in person will feel forced to do so.

If the administration is going to take unilateral action like this, it should also ready classrooms by providing N95 masks to all students. Public health experts have noted the increased transmissibility of the omicron variant, and research has shown that cloth masks are not very effective in preventing its spread. While surgical masks are better than nothing, the rigorously tested N95, KN95 and KF94 masks are far more effective at protecting at-risk students and their loved ones.

But instead of providing N95 and other standardized masks, UNC has made it more difficult for students to acquire them. While the Black Student Movement and Student Government independently acquired masks to distribute to students, the University does not allow for the use of any University funds to acquire more masks.

This ban extends to student-controlled fees like those traditionally controlled by students, including Student Government.

Instead, UNC has a centralized program where faculty and staff — but not students — can request community protective equipment, like masks and hand sanitizer, through designated CPE coordinators. The purchases are made using state and federal funds the University has access to for community protective equipment, rather than University funds.

Each coordinator is responsible for one of the various programs or buildings on campus. To find the CPE coordinator for your classes, workplace or program, log in to UNC's website to view the list.

This program’s flaw is that it fails to meet students’ needs and bars students from taking matters into their own hands. N95 and other recommended masks are considered “enhanced” CPE that coordinators have to make a special request for. 

In an email to The Daily Tar Heel, UNC Media Relations said these requests require “a proven business need” to be approved. UNC has not responded to the DTH's request to clarify what this standard requires.

Regardless of the standard, by centralizing how CPE can be ordered and shutting students out of the process, even when students want to take the initiative to ensure their classes are safe, their hands are tied. Only student groups that have completely separated their money from University control are able to use their funds to purchase CPE.

The University should be committed to making sure that students understand why N95 masks are more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 and making sure all students have them.

Although federal programs have made N95 masks more accessible, students still cannot be sure that they — and everyone else in their classrooms — have them. Policies like these only serve to obstruct public health and safety.


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