Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., expects all students and employees to wear masks indoors, “no exceptions,” it said Tuesday — the same day that a former department chair published his account of resigning over the university’s lack of a mask mandate.
“Yesterday, on the first day of classes for the 21-22 academic year, I resigned from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University after 21 years and a few days because the university’s COVID policies were wrong,” Timothy Wilson, former chair of electrical engineering and computer science, wrote on LinkedIn. “Embry-Riddle would not allow faculty members to require those in their classrooms and those in their offices to require masks, and the university would not allow faculty with specific concerns about their own or others’ health to teach remotely.”
Feeling “back to normal” for a brief period in the late spring and early summer was great, Wilson explains in his piece, but the rise of the Delta variant changed things. Embry-Riddle’s COVID-19 policies, meanwhile, have not changed. That’s a problem, especially at an institution dedicated to science and aviation safety, he said.
“Engineering ethics starts with protecting the health, safety and well-being of the public,” Wilson wrote. “Requiring masks in classrooms and close spaces like offices is a cheap and effective strategy to reduce COVID transmission, as ERAU’s experience during the 20-21 academic year demonstrated.”
Among other COVID-19 prevention measures, Embry-Riddle required masks last academic year. In a May memo announcing the resumption of “normal operations,” the university continued to encourage vaccination but said masks were now optional.
Earlier this month, the university made several announcements encouraging masking indoors, especially in classrooms.
It did not announce a mandate, despite pleas from the Faculty Senate and other groups and individuals for it to do so.
Wilson said in his resignation account that he’d spoken at an orientation event last week where just about 20 percent of attendees wore masks. He said he was also directed to remind a colleague that it was against university policy to say students were “expected” to mask up in class.
Wilson did have that chat with the colleague, he said, but he was “disgusted with myself.”
Is an Expectation ‘Really a Policy’?
The university says its new policy — an “expectation” that students, employees and visitors wear masks indoors — is not related to Wilson’s resignation. It also denies that the policy is a mandate, or that it constitutes any reversal from its prior stance on masking.
Ginger Pinholster, university spokesperson, said Tuesday that Embry-Riddle “does not have a mask mandate and did not issue one today. University leadership today made it clear that wearing masks indoors and in aircraft is a cultural expectation at Embry-Riddle, consistent with our strong aviation safety culture.”
The university “is continuing to partner with our exceptional faculty members to improve safety and uphold our mission of education,” Pinholster added.
Embry-Riddle accepts state funds for some programs, but it’s a private institution. Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, published an executive order against school mask mandates in July. But in announcing an emergency school voucher program for students fleeing school districts that have adopted mask mandates anyway, DeSantis’s administration acknowledged that these vouchers can be used both ways — meaning that vouchers can be used at private schools, which can enforce masks.
Embry-Riddle, whose governing board is chaired by DeSantis donor and adviser Mori Hosseini, has resisted any mandate this year.
Tuesday’s message on masks says, “From this moment forward, in light of the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Embry-Riddle leadership expects everyone — whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated — to wear a mask over your nose and mouth at all times whenever you are inside any university facility or aircraft.”
“Sadly,” the announcement says, the aeronautical “safety-first mindset was not on display during the first day of classes yesterday, and therefore we are making our expectations more explicit: Wear a mask indoors and on the flight deck.”
The guidance does not include details on what happens if students, employees or visitors defy this expectation.
Wilson said Tuesday evening that the announcement didn’t change his mind about leaving Embry-Riddle, and that he’s “moving forward.”
Asked about his colleagues who remain on campus, who will in many cases be on the front lines of expectation enforcement, Wilson said, “It’s a crappy position to have to enforce this. And if there’s no backup for it, is it really a policy?”
Wilson, who was otherwise content at Embry-Riddle, said that he would have expected the institution “to put something more data-driven in place. There would have been an empirical aspect of this; they would have been looking at the policy to see what the impact was.” And if Delta disappears, he said, “we can go back to being vaccinated and not wearing masks.”
Wilson clearly saw a disconnect between the university’s science-based mission and its policy decisions. He said in his LinkedIn piece that universities also have a duty to protect their people. As someone who is HIV positive, he said he understands this as well as anyone.
“A university should protect its most vulnerable.”