Why Howard University Prioritizes Consistency Amid Pandemic Uncertainties

Howard University students

Courtesy of Howard University

Key Takeaways

  • Despite changing guidance from health authorities, Howard University in Washington D.C. has maintained its mask mandate throughout the pandemic.
  • The university credits the mandate, along with other health safety protocols, for keeping case positivity rates low at the school.
  • Keeping COVID-19 policies consistent is key to keeping the school community safe and healthy, according to the provost at Howard University.

In a year of changing rules and recommendations surrounding COVID-19, Howard University has prioritized consistency.

The historically Black university is one of the few U.S. colleges to keep mask mandates in place, after many institutions dropped mask recommendations following the announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March.

“We determined fairly early on and we made a commitment to faculty, staff and students that we would guide our decisions based upon science and data,” Anthony K. Wutoh, PhD, RPh, the provost and chief academic officer of Howard University, told Verywell.

Rising COVID-19 cases in Washington D.C. influenced the university to err on the side of caution, despite the CDC dropping its mask recommendations, he added. For the week ending on April 8, Howard University saw an increase in positivity rates from 2.08% to 5.67% on campus, according to Wutoh. As of this week, the percentage has declined to around 3.5%, he added.

Howard University is not the only D.C.-based university currently requiring masks, although it’s unique in being consistent with COVID-19 protocols. Since implementation, Howard has never rescinded its mask mandate.

Georgetown University, American University, and George Washington University have all reinstated their indoor mask mandates recently amid rising case counts.

Community-focused Case Tracking 

Howard tracks cases and positivity rates through its Bison Safe app, where students and staff log daily COVID-19 screenings and weekly test results. Administrators can use app data to gauge case positivity rates on campus, which at their lowest were less than 1%, Wutoh said.

The university credits its success in keeping COVID cases low to its multiple health safety measures: masking, mandatory vaccines and boosters, and frequent testing. Students who test positive test or miss two test appointments will be prohibited from entering many buildings on campus.

Howard University also continues to work with remote learning options, having moved didactic undergraduate classes and exams online from April 14 to April 22 to mitigate virus spread.

Around 98% of students and 95% of employees at Howard said they are vaccinated, according to Wutoh.

“This really is a collective responsibility,” he said. “We didn’t implement these measures to be onerous or coercive, but to help protect the entire community. Everyone has taken that charge to do what they need to do not only to keep themselves safe and healthy, but to protect those in the community.”

Some of Howard’s faculty and staff are older adults who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than the general population, Wutoh added. Keeping measures in place even as case numbers drop aids in the university’s goal of protecting the health and safety of everyone on campus, including the most vulnerable, he said.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense to make a lot of changes with a week or two weeks remaining in the semester, as opposed to allowing the semester to close, not causing any alarm or confusion,” Wutoh said.

While Howard’s decision in some ways can be perceived as going against the norm, it is meant to prioritize the health and safety of its community, he added.

Howard’s commencement will take place on May 7, with a main ceremony held outdoors and individual school ceremonies held both indoors and outdoors. Masks will be encouraged but not required at outdoors ceremonies, but they will be mandatory at indoor ceremonies.

What This Means For You

Colleges and universities have taken different approaches with masking, with some dropping mask requirements to match local government protocols and others reinstating the order to reduce transmission.

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.