Student organizations gathered on Sunday to protest American University’s new mask-optional policy, which went into effect Monday.
Katherine Greenstein, a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and president of the Disabled Student Union, organized the rally in support of reinstating the University’s mask mandate along with the executive board of DSU, Cassidy Stoneback, the president of AU PRIDE, Cristian Mendoza Gomez, the president of the AU Public Health Association and Kaniya Harris, the director of Women’s Initiative.
“[The mask-optional policy] is not a decision that is being made at the right time,” Greenstein said. “We have to be able to prioritize the most vulnerable, so that means having a mask mandate and hybrid learning, and those aren’t things that are being prioritized right now.”
The protest on the quad consisted of six speeches, followed by a die-in – a form of protest in which participants lie on the ground to simulate being dead. Speakers from various student organizations urged the AU community and administration to consider the wellbeing of disabled and immunocompromised individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, often citing their fears.
Laura Polomis, a sophomore in the SPA and DSU treasurer, said she is tired of disabled lives being treated “as a commodity.” In her speech, she advocated for accessibility measures that would keep disabled community members safe.
“I cannot learn, I cannot grow if I’m in my dorm room scared for my life,” Polomis said in her speech.
Max Burchell, a freshman in the Kogod School of Business and a member of DSU, spoke about the importance of preserving lives and our responsibility to protect others.
“After the news came out, I was just heartbroken and frustrated and really mad because it seems to me that the people celebrating that decision were lacking basic compassion and basic care for others,” Burchell said, adding that with the new variants of COVID-19 around the world, the pandemic is not over yet.
Burchell said he would prefer the University mandate masks but would appreciate a hybrid learning option for students who feel unsafe attending classes with unmasked peers.
Henry Jeanneret, a junior in the School of Communication and College of Arts and Sciences and the Academic Support and Access Center liaison for DSU, attended the rally because he said it is crucial to listen to the concerns of other community members. Jeanneret said he has sensory issues that make it uncomfortable for him to wear a mask, but he does to protect his peers.
“My discomfort [of wearing a mask] for an hour and 15 minutes is outweighed – and should be outweighed – by the health and safety of everyone else around me,” Jeanneret told The Eagle. “Because I can take a break from wearing a mask, but my friends can’t take a break from being immunocompromised.”
Greenstein and other DSU members have been drafting emails to send to deans and professors, requesting hybrid learning and mask mandates in classes. They also said one solution in obtaining necessary accommodations from the University is self-advocacy, a significant aspect of the disabled movement.
DSU recently co-signed an open letter to the administration advocating to reinstate the mask mandate.
“We’re working on helping people advocate for themselves, helping people get accommodations,” Greenstein said. “When it comes to disability advocacy, we will not stop talking about this until we get what we need and that is for students to feel safe in our classrooms.”