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Home » Issues » PSC members must be able to ask students to wear masks

PSC members must be able to ask students to wear masks

PSC President James Davis sent the following letter to Chancellor Matos Rodriguez:


August 25, 2022

Dear Chancellor Matos,

I wrote to you on August 1 in anticipation of the start of an excellent Fall semester. I urged you, on behalf of our members, to permit them to ask students to wear a mask in their in-person classes, labs, or work areas. I explained the union’s position: “The stakes of contracting COVID are still high for many CUNY employees and/or their family members. Even a University that does not require indoor mask-wearing can and should normalize compliance with such requests from vulnerable members of the campus community.” Provost Hensel’s guidance to the university community (CUNY Return to Campus FAQs), issued August 23, expressly prohibits instructors from asking students to wear masks. So I am writing again to insist that you reconsider this bad policy. 

The justification Provost Hensel provided is that mask-wearing is optional at CUNY, and given the authority faculty members possess, such a request, however it is expressed, may be coercive and constrain a student’s voluntary choice. But there are other ways to acknowledge the power dynamics of the classroom that nevertheless allow our members to request that students wear masks, which is not just a matter of academic freedom but also of workplace safety. The PSC’s position is a reasonable one: the University may prohibit employees from requiring mask-wearing of others with whom they share indoor workspaces, but employees have a right to ask other members of the campus community – whether they are students, colleagues, or administrators – to wear masks in their presence. The others may refuse, just as they may refuse if someone requests that they remove their mask. Such requests would not be limited to employees of course; students should not be prohibited from asking others to wear masks either. Creating the conditions for a classroom community to develop its own norms and expectations is a best practice many instructors embrace. The power dynamics of a classroom do not obviate one’s right to make health-affirming requests of one another, and such dynamics can be addressed and accounted for with better guidance from the institution. 

One example is the current policy at MIT, where mask-wearing is optional. It reads in the relevant part, All community members are asked to respect others’ choices on masking and to be respectful of those choices when discussing mask usage. Individuals, DLCs, or organizations may not require, coerce, or pressure others to wear masks. In situations where there are power imbalances, individuals are asked to be especially thoughtful in requesting a person to alter their masking practice since even well-meaning requests can be perceived to carry pressure or coercion. If you are asked to wear a mask in an area where it is not required or to remove a mask in a particular situation, you are free to refuse.” Rather than issue a categorical prohibition, CUNY could provide affirmative guidance to employees whose personal or family health conditions compel them to ask others to wear a mask in their presence, notwithstanding the University’s mask-optional policy. The University has an obligation under OSHA standards and the PSC-CUNY contract to furnish employees with a workplace “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” That obligation must be weighed against the desire to maintain free choice in absolute terms with respect to mask-wearing.

As you know, mask-wearing policies differ across universities in our area. Rutgers recently moved to require face coverings in all indoor teaching spaces, libraries, and clinical settings. SUNY colleges have established various policies on mask-wearing, and while few permit instructors to require mask-wearing in their classes, none that we are aware of expressly prohibits instructors from requesting it, as CUNY has done. That discrepancy takes on an added dimension of cruelty given New York City’s COVID community risk levels, which remain high according to CDC standards, and the CDC recommendations that individuals wear masks indoors under such conditions. The NYC Department of Health guidance also recommends wearing “a high-quality mask in all indoor public settings and around crowds outside” in areas of high COVID transmission. CUNY’s policy, promulgated on August 23, not only falls short of these CDC and NYC DOH recommendations, it deprives employees of the expectation that they will be observed as a normative standard.

The PSC has consistently supported vaccination, testing, mask-wearing, and ventilation as components of a smart public health approach to managing COVID at CUNY. We recognize that everyone is tired of this pandemic, and many of us are tired of wearing masks. But we believe that a more thoughtful policy about what we can ask of others is possible and that the current one will not survive scrutiny.


James Davis, President

Professional Staff Congress


From: James Davis

Sent: Monday, August 1, 2022 5:53 PM

To: Felo <[email protected]>

Cc: Pamela Silverblatt <[email protected]>

Subject: Health and safety – from PSC


Dear Chancellor Matos,

With the start of Fall semester less than a month away, I’m writing on behalf of PSC members to urge the University to take some specific steps to improve health and safety conditions. As you know, COVID-19 remains a major threat. Despite the lower rate at which the latest variants have resulted in hospitalization or death, high rates of transmission and serious illness persist.

We are grateful that the University continues to encourage vaccination among students and employees alike. Nevertheless, given that a booster specific to the BA5 variant is still months away, and given the high transmissibility of that variant, our members must be able to ask students in their in-person classes, labs, and work areas to wear masks. As we have discussed, only the combination of high vaccination rates, proper ventilation, and vigilant mask-wearing indoors can prevent a strongly transmissible COVID variant from spreading. The stakes of contracting COVID are still high for many CUNY employees and/or their family members. Even a University that does not require indoor mask-wearing can and should normalize compliance with such requests from vulnerable members of the campus community.

Moreover, only a rigorous on-campus surveillance testing program can help to monitor and curtail the spread of a highly transmissible variant. So we also urge the University to maintain for now the program through which vaccinated members of the campus community are randomly tested on site.

When it comes to mask-wearing, the effective options are the N95 and KN95 models. Each college should maintain a supply of these masks and make them available as needed at a publicized location on campus. 

We want everyone to stay healthy and productively engaged this Fall, and to do so with improved morale, as the past two years have been exceptionally difficult. We see the aforementioned measures as a temporary necessity, not a permanent feature of work at CUNY.

Finally, we ask that you communicate with CUNY employees immediately about the Monkeypox outbreak. Please encourage vaccination against Monkeypox, explain that Governor Hochul has now declared a state of disaster emergency, and indicate what steps the University is taking to inform and protect the CUNY workforce.


James Davis, President

Professional Staff Congress

Published: August 25, 2022

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