Mask refusal on campus prompts online instruction

Professor moves courses after COVID-19 policy complaints

Evan Laux, NEWS & OPINION EDITOR

Dr. David Vanata recently moved all of his courses online following a student complaint about classroom COVID-19 policies.

Vanata, a director of the Dietetic Program in Nutrition and Dietetics, and associate professor in the family and consumer sciences department, gave students the option at the beginning of the Spring semester to not wear masks in his classroom.

Vanata’s classroom policy was found in direct violation of AU’s “Stronger Together, Safer Together” COVID-19 response guidelines. He declined to comment on the incident.

“It’s always hard to read when there’s people who don’t agree with a practice or a policy,” President Carlos Campo said. “What I would say is that I respect Dr. Vanata’s right to be upset. And even to express his chagrin with not aligning with the AU policy. I don’t know if he was unaware of the protocol at that time. But we can not allow any single professor to step out of the protocols because there’s too much at stake.”

Since students returned to campus in August of 2020, AU has required all employees, faculty and students to wear a mask within campus buildings and dorms, unless alone in their personal offices or rooms.

One student, a sophomore who wishes to be kept unanimous, said that only three of the total 16 students in one of his classes wore masks.

Statements and information given by the anonymous source were confirmed by two other students in the class.

“We walked in the first day and he came in without a mask,” she said. “Dr. Vanata said that ‘if we’re going to get sick, we’re going to get sick—a mask isn’t going to stop it.’ He said that he doesn’t care if other people wear their mask but sort of encouraged people to take them off as it impeded on personal freedoms.”

Vanata sent an email to his students on Jan. 30, 2020 explaining that a student of his had informed the College of Nursing & Health Sciences Dean that they had felt uncomfortable in his class. Following this explanation, he proceeded to move his courses online.

The final two lines of his email sparked criticism from students. It reads as follows:

“My goal while at AU has been to encourage you to think, and I cannot enforce a policy that removes your choices and individual freedoms. I may one day return to face to face teaching, when the university allows choice and liberties, and we replace Cowards with Patriots.”

“I definitely think he made it seem politically rooted with the use of ‘freedom,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘patriots,” the anonymous source said. “I really looked at it and thought it seemed extremely childlike, especially since the class is structured around body image and helping to feel comfortable with yourself… and then to basically shame people who are feeling uncomfortable in the class by calling them cowards. It was in very poor taste.”

According to President Carlos Campo, this incident is an isolated event and no records of other faculty being insubordinate to COVID-19 guidelines has been recorded.

“I do know that as a community, we have made a commitment to individual freedom,” Campo said. “But when your individual freedom begins to impinge on someone’s safety, that’s when you have to relinquish that freedom for the good of the community. That’s what we’re doing with these masks.”

Despite Vanata having to move his courses to online learning, it is unknown whether he was penalized in any way for disregarding COVID-19 guidelines.

AU’s Provost, Dr. Amiel Jarstfer, echoed the same sentiments as President Campo, that “from the beginning faculty had the choice on how they would do their courses,” but that he would not want to comment on a specific faculty member’s decisions.

“I think it ultimately can be a dog whistle to other people that believe that wearing a mask is some form of an attack on personal liberties when it’s really just a way to be courteous to those around us,” the anonymous source said. “It can definitely encourage other people to start ignoring these guidelines that AU has set up.”

Vanata teaches three classes within the Schar College of Nursing and Health Sciences, “Society’s Influence on Body Image and Eating,” “Nutrition Counseling Skills” and “Advanced Human Nutrition.”

Another student, who also wishes to be left anonymous for fear of athletic punishment, agreed with Vanata’s policy.

“He said on day one, if you do not agree with him allowing us to choose whether or not to wear a mask then to just drop the class and pick it up at a later date,” the source said. “No one was forced to do anything. It should be a choice, AU’s motto is that they teach us how to think and not what to think.”

AU’s pandemic guidelines can be found on their COVID-19 Dashboard, as well as up-to-date infection numbers and statistics.