By Published: Feb. 23, 2023

Study finds those on CU Boulder and CSU campuses showed high levels of mask use and positive attitudes about masks during pandemic

The vast majority of students at Colorado’s top universities and 52 other schools nationwide wore face masks properly in 2021, indicating that students understood masks’ effectiveness, that students knew masking helped them take more classes in person, and that students care about the health of others, researchers have found.

new study from the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University (CSU) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than 90% of people on CU Boulder and CSU campuses wore masks correctly amid the pandemic during spring 2021.The study, titled, "High rates of observed face mask use at Colorado universities align with students’ opinions about masking and support the safety and viability of in-person higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic," was published this month by BMC Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal focused on public health. 

Specifically, researchers found that 91.7%, 93.4%, and 90.8% of people observed at indoor locations on campuses wore masks correctly at CU Boulder, CSU and across 52 other schoolsnationally, respectively. Researchers also found that 92.9% of respondents at CU Boulder and 89.8% at CSU believed that wearing masks can protect the health of others.

Images of Tanya Alderete, Molly Gutilla, and Kevin Clark

Top of page: Music students practiced safe COVID-safe protocols in Don McKinnney’s wind symphony class by wearing masks with slits cut through at the CU Boulder College of Music. The implemented protocols for the performance students were being refined and studied by Shelly Miller, a CU Boulder mechanical engineering professor who specializes in indoor air quality and aerosol and particulate transmission, and her team of researchers. Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado. Above: (Left) Tanya Alderete is an assistant professor focused on the relationships between obesity, metabolic disease, enivironmental exposures, and the gut microbiome. (Center) Molly Gutilla, assistant professor, is an expert in public health research and practice. (Right) Kevin Clark, an M.S. graduate student, studies health, healthcare, sleep, tech, wearables and sensors.

Both Colorado universities saw their largest surges in COVID-19 cases in the fall of 2020, with markedly lower-case counts during the mask observation window of eight weeks in the spring of 2021.

“The study supports the idea that masks are an effective, low-cost measure to reduce disease transmission and establishes masking as a viable way to reduce respiratory disease transmission on college campuses,” says Tanya Alderete, assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology at CU Boulder and a principal investigator of the project.

“We also learned that students strongly prefer in-person education to remote, and masking behaviors were supportive of this preference.”

Molly Gutilla, a faculty member at the Colorado School of Public Health at CSU and a principal investigator, agrees with Alderete and adds, “The majority of students care about the health of their community, and they were willing to practice and promote actions to protect campus health.”

Gutilla adds, “Operating a university during the pandemic emphasized something we’ve always known, yet was brought to the forefront. That is, that our campus communities must be safe and healthy to meet our mission of teaching, learning and conducting research. Using data to make decisions was essential to keeping campuses open and functioning as best as possible during the pandemic.”

Alderete, who holds an adjunct faculty position at the Colorado School of Public Health, says when she learned Gutilla was a principal investigator at CSU, they decided to partner in the study. “As a result, we were able to identify complementary data sources that were available on both campuses, including student surveys and COVID testing data,” Alderete says. 

The study was part of the CDC’s effort to measure mask use on U.S. campuses, called the mask adherence and surveillance at colleges and universities project (MASCUP!). From Feb. 15 through April 11, 2021, CU Boulder made 2,808 observations, CSU had 3,225 observations, andat the 52 other institutes of higher education there were 100,353 observations spanning 21 states and the District of Columbia. 

We were able to see that our findings were consistent across two campuses—with generally similar rates of mask use and student belief in masking to reduce COVID transmission.”

Kevin Clark, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Integrative Physiology and lead author of the study, says the collaboration between CU Boulder and CSU “strengthened the generalizability” of the findings on both campuses. 

“Instead of presenting either of our campuses as an individual location where we observed mask use and reported student opinions, we were able to see that our findings were consistent across two campuses—with generally similar rates of mask use and student belief in masking to reduce COVID transmission,” Clark says.

He also praised the leadership of CU Boulder’s COVID Scientific Committee for its help in conducting surveys to gather student opinions and in incorporating testing data into the project. 

“I gained a tremendous appreciation for the number of different people and resources at CU Boulder and CSU that were dedicated to monitoring COVID and creating policies and practices for keeping campuses safe,” Clark says. 

“I was very impressed by the scale and accuracy of the saliva-based surveillance testing program that CU Boulder had developed and deployed, running hundreds of thousands of surveillance tests. This technology was promptly shared with CSU to use on their campus. We also were surprised to learn how similar masking behaviors and opinions were between CU and CSU.”