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Disability Law Student Association Raises Concerns over Harvard Ending its Mask Mandate

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Harvard Law School’s Disability Law Student Association filed an open letter earlier this month asking administrators to refrain from ending the Law School’s mask mandate.

The Law School made face coverings optional after students returned from spring break on the heels of the University’s announcement that it would lift its indoor mask mandate on March 14.

In the DLSA’s March 8 letter, students requested that HLS administrators establish an anonymous process for students to request medical accommodations from professors as well as loosen the class recording policy.

The letter has not been sent directly to administrators, but has been shared with student groups and published in the Harvard Law Record.

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In the letter, DLSA leaders expressed concerns over the timing of the mask mandate lift. DLSA officer Marty Strauss said in an interview with The Crimson that the Law School’s decision left many immunocompromised students feeling vulnerable and worried.

“Especially changing the policy in the middle of the semester is particularly unfair to people who are immunocompromised,” Strauss said. “They will have difficult choices to make at this point.”

In addition to the timing dispute, Linh Tang, a first-year law student, mentioned she found no reference to the considerations of disabled students in any communication about lifting the mask mandate from HLS officials.

“There was a last minute one-liner saying that if you want to keep your mask on, feel free to do so,” Tang said. “There wasn't enough of a window for people to voice their opinion.”

Law School Dean for Administration L. Tracee Whitley ’88 wrote in a March 7 email to HLS affiliates that individuals can "freely exercise the personal choice" to continue masking indoors.

"HLS leadership joins the University in supporting such personal health decisions by our community members, and asks that everyone support and respect any member of our community who wishes to continue taking advantage of the extra level of personal health protection offered by face coverings," Whitley wrote.

Tang also said that no students were consulted throughout the school’s decision making process.

“We don't know if there was even a poll for the faculty,” Tang said. “But as far as we know, nobody ever polled the student body to ask. It was a unilateral decision from the administration without a lot of consideration of student voices.”

Lucy Litt, the DLSA’s president, said this was not the first time disabled students have had trouble receiving accommodations from the Law School. Litt stressed that it was important for professors to make class recordings available so disabled students have the option of attending class asynchronously to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus.

“What I've heard the most is frustration with getting access to class recordings in particular,” Litt said. “We've had students who have sort of needed that all along or could have benefited from that all along. It's extremely difficult to get any kind of accommodation like that.”

In the past few days, as students have experienced campus life without masks, Litt added that members of the DLSA have raised new requests since publishing the open letter, such as creating a designated socially distanced eating area for immunocompromised students who wished to continue eating on campus.

“When this school originally went remote… they made recordings available,” Litt said. “I think people have just been frustrated that they might become invisible again once this whole thing stops affecting everybody else.”

–Staff Writer Anne M. Brandes can be reached at anne.brandes@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @annebrandes1

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