Optional masking announcement stirs controversy throughout the district


Amy Huang

Robert Cormia, professor in the Computer Information Systems department at Foothill College, giving a public comment at the board of trustees meeting on Oct. 3.

Rory Conlon and Andrea Saldana

A new Foothill-De Anza policy announcing optional masking indoors has sparked controversy among faculty, students and administration on both campuses. In an email sent out after 10 p.m. on Sept. 23, three days before fall quarter began, Chancellor Judy Miner reversed a previously agreed-upon mandatory masking mandate. 

Last May, the Chancellor’s Advisory Council met to review the masking mandate for summer quarter. The council was divided over whether or not to remove it, so the final decision was left to Chancellor Miner, who agreed to continue requiring masking for all indoor classes and public-facing offices. On Aug. 16, in an email from Miner sent out to district employees, she announced the Chancellor’s Consultation Task force’s decision to extend this policy for fall quarter and said she “(owed) a debt of gratitude” to members of the task force for “sharing the perspectives of students and employees.” 

Miner has since backtracked on that decision without first consulting with several on-campus groups, including the staff on both campuses, the academic senate on both campuses and the student body itself. Paula Norsell, the coordinator of communications and public affairs for the chancellor’s office, cited changing circumstances as the reason for the reversal. 

Steve Batham, a history instructor at Foothill College, making a public comment at the Oct. 3 board of trustees meeting. (Amy Huang)

Initial plans to require indoor masking during the fall quarter were made toward the end of this summer’s COVID-19 surge,” Norsell wrote in an email. “Since that time, the surge subsided and case rates and related hospitalizations in Santa Clara County have continued to decline.” 

Norsell also said that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, Santa Clara County has been assigned a “low” community level (which is still in effect as of Oct. 9). 

On Sept. 26, Miner emailed district employees to clarify her initial decision made three days earlier. Miner expressed concern that the district was “losing enrollment to neighboring districts as a result of the masking mandate.” 

The district’s enrollment declined significantly during the pandemic and has yet to recover,” Norsell wrote in an email. “In the academic year 2021-22 alone, resident enrollment (full-time equivalent students) declined by 12% when compared to the previous year, and non-resident enrollment declined by 24%.” 

The chancellor’s office said that according to the preliminary reports, between the time of the optional masking announcement and the start of fall term, there has been a slight improvement in enrollment. 

Despite the slight influx in enrollment since the masking change, at the board of trustees meeting on Oct. 3, the optional masking policy received criticism through public comments made by attendees. 

Tim Shively, the president of Faculty Association, expresses disapproval of the district’s rescinding of the masking mandate at the board of trustees meeting on Oct. 3. (Amy Huang)

Steve Batham, a history instructor at Foothill College, said he is immunocompromised and that he could have secured a medical exemption from his doctor had he been given prior notice of optional masking. He called Miner’s sudden announcement a “bait-and-switch” and said that he “feels really deceived.”

“I felt, as a message to the faculty, this was not something to be discussed,” Batham said. “It came at a time after the winter schedule had already been submitted, which meant that I’m locked in for not only this quarter, but next quarter.” 

Tim Shively, a De Anza professor and the president of the Foothill-De Anza Faculty Association, read a statement during the meeting from a long-time faculty member who chose to stay anonymous. The faculty member said they had been told “more than once” to include a masking statement in their syllabus and that on Friday, De Anza itself reminded students with on-campus classes that they had to wear a mask. 

“It was already obvious that a no-win situation had been created, because every classroom now had some unhappy students regardless of how instructors decided to proceed,” the faculty member said. “Instructors were going to have to deal with the fallout.” 

The new guidelines allow Jack Huang, 27, computer information systems major, to work on homework in the library without a mask. (Grayson Kunz)

The faculty member also questioned a claim Miner made in her Sept. 26  email.

“In her apology email, Chancellor Miner stated that students were going to other districts because of the mask mandate without providing any evidence,” the faculty member said. “How about students who will leave our campuses because there are now potentially numerous students as well as instructors in their classes that are without a mask, when they were told it would be required?”

As of Oct. 5, there are no meetings planned by the chancellor to further discuss the change in policy. 

Update 10/10/2022: The Article has been updated to clarify that the masking policy for the summer quarter was decided by Chancellor Judy Miner alone.