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Graduate students protest repeal of university’s mask mandate (photos)

By ThisIsReno

Photos & Video by Ty O’Neil

Dozens of students walked out of classes midday Monday at the University of Nevada, Reno and marched to the campus’s quad to protest the repeal of the Nevada System of Higher Education’s (NSHE) mask mandate.

The protest was organized by members of the Nevada Graduate Student Workers, a UNR-based collective of graduate assistants who work and attend classes on campus.

“I feel incredibly unsafe,” said Emily Bird, a graduate student instructor at UNR. “There are all these people on campus now who are not wearing masks who could possibly be spreading COVID and that is additionally compounded by the fact that we took away our vaccination requirement. 

“I have no way of knowing how many of my students, how many of my peers, how many people walking past me are unvaccinated and spreading COVID at a much higher rate, putting me and all of my community at risk,” she added. 

The group started a petition on Feb. 10 shortly after Gov. Steve Sisolak announced he was dropping the state’s mask mandate and NSHE leaders followed suit. 

In a statement to the university community UNR President Brian Sandoval said his hands were tied and he did not have authority to impose a campus-wide mask requirement. 

“Stricter face covering requirements, according to NSHE’s legal determination, involve systemwide policy decisions that fall outside of an individual institution’s discretion,” he wrote, adding, “Individuals who choose to continue wearing a face covering or who choose not to wear a face covering on our campus, should be permitted to do so free of any criticism, judgment, or retaliation.”

The petition has gained nearly 1,700 signatures and calls for NSHE to reinstate its mask requirement on campuses at least through the spring semester or as long as community transmission remains at the “substantial” level or higher.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend indoor masking on college campuses in areas of substantial or high transmission. The CDC’s COVID tracker rates Washoe County as “high” for level of community transmission and Washoe County’s COVID tracker rates the community at “very high” risk.

Graduate student workers, in the petition, said maintaining the masking requirement would allow for continued in-person learning, “as is clearly preferred by the majority of workers and attendees.”

Ahead of Monday’s protest, UNR Faculty Alliance Chair Kent Ervin said in an email to campus leadership that some students wearing or advocating for masks on campus had already faced harassment. He said the harassment was particularly aimed at students of color and LGBTQ+ students.

“This is of course unacceptable, and a strong statement from President Sandoval is needed to back up the one from Thursday,” Ervin said. 

Ervin said he was also flabbergasted at NSHE’s decision, calling it a political decision rather than based on public health guidance.

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