Plexiglass shields to be removed from classrooms upon faculty request

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Photo: Dylan Rossiter

Emerson will remove plexiglass dividers installed in classrooms preceding the Fall 2021 semester.

By Vivi Smilgius, Editor-in-Chief

Emerson will remove plexiglass dividers installed in classrooms preceding the Fall 2021 semester.

According to Emerson’s assistant vice president of facilities and campus services Duncan Pollock, the dividers will be removed upon professor request but mobile units will be available.

Pollock also noted that plexiglass in computer labs will “most likely remain” until the end of the 2021-22 academic year.

“I’m thrilled we’re getting rid of it and counting the days until it actually happens,” said Cindy Rodriguez, senior journalist-in-residence and instructor at Emerson. “Plexiglass makes classroom discussion hard because half the time people can’t really hear unless you’re really projecting your voice.”

Rodriguez is one of many faculty members who are glad to see the plexiglass go. Emerson’s decision follows a request from faculty, who filed a petition-like request to remove the plexiglass shields, according to Douglas Struck, a journalism professor and Senior Journalist-in-Residence at the college. Struck seconded Rodriguez’s sentiments, also citing difficulty hearing students.

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“Communicating in a classroom is pretty important,” he said. “I want to be able to listen to [students] and I would like to think they want to listen to me. Those plexiglass shields made it practically impossible to do so.”

Heather May, a senior lecturer in Emerson’s Communication Studies department, agreed with Struck, adding that the shields combined with masks, made having authentic discussions difficult.

“You’re already dealing with masks, which are muffling the sound a little bit. If you’re behind the plexiglass, it muffles the sound even more, and you can’t see other people’s lips,” May said. “It can make it really hard to have natural, organic conversation and dialogue.”

Both Struck and May recognized the lack of need for plexiglass shields at Emerson, especially with the college’s weekly testing protocols. While the shields may have provided peace of mind at the beginning of the pandemic, science shows plexiglass shields like the ones in Emerson classrooms do not help prevent the spread of the virus, said May.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, people just didn’t know exactly what the best way was to protect each other,” she said. “What we know now is that masks, combined with the vaccine, is really the best practice for keeping us safe. With the testing protocols and everything that Emerson has, it doesn’t seem like they’re necessary anymore.” 

Rodriguez echoed these sentiments, saying she’d also seen studies that showed plexiglass had potential to make things worse by acting as a COVID echo chamber if an infected person is behind the shield.

The removal of plexiglass shields preceded a series of other changes announced in a community-wide email from Interim President William Gilligan and “COVID Lead” Erik Müürisepp on Feb. 18. The email announced that the college will adopt a more flexible COVID-19 response in which campus protocols will reflect the “ebb and flow” of the virus.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, for example, Emerson will allow fully vaccinated and boosted non-Emerson guests inside residence halls starting Feb. 22 at 9 a.m.

Starting Mar. 21, the college will adopt a “mask optional” policy for vaccinated and boosted individuals indoors except for in classrooms, the Center for Health and Wellness, and Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services. Emerson aims to be completely mask-optional by May 16 and will return to full capacity operations in all spaces the same day.

Students will continue testing once a week at 116 Harrison Ave., but the college will consider shifting to an optional testing model if positivity rates remain low.

Emerson also announced it will disband its COVID-19 team over the summer.

Camilo Fonseca contributed to reporting.