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University Faculty Call For Mask, Vaccine Mandates Ahead Of Fall Semester

The University of Northern Iowa campus
University of Northern Iowa
Faculty, staff and students across Iowa's three public universities are calling on administrators and state leaders to mandate masks and vaccines amid a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Hundreds of faculty, staff and students across Iowa’s public universities are urging campus leaders to implement more coronavirus precautions as the delta variant fuels an increase in cases ahead of the fall semester. Petitions circulated at the schools call on school administrators and the Iowa Board of Regents to reinstate mask mandates and require vaccines, in line with other peer institutions.

Faculty, staff and students across the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are calling on state and campus leaders to take action now to prevent spikes in infections on campus and the potential hospitalizations and deaths that could follow.

“There are young people getting sick from COVID and some young people dying,” said Chris Martin, vice president of Faculty United, the faculty union at UNI. “What I don’t want to do is have to address the first person who is seriously ill or dies from COVID at a public university and I fear that that could be coming in the coming weeks unless something changes.”

In impassioned letters that have garnered hundreds of signatures, concerned employees and students say the universities must do more to protect those at risk and their families, including people who are immunocompromised or who have children under the age of 12 and cannot get vaccinated.

“It should not take another spike in infections, hospitalizations, or deaths for you to act to prevent what is predictable given the science and the experience of other states,” reads the petition circulated by United Faculty. “We should not risk the death or long-term COVID disability of one university employee or student because we did not act soon enough.”

"What I don’t want to do is have to address the first person who is seriously ill or dies from COVID at a public university and I fear that that could be coming in the coming weeks unless something changes."
-Chris Martin, vice president, Faculty United

United Faculty has also filed a complaint with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, citing “unsafe working conditions”.

“Cases by age in [Black Hawk County] are highest in the 19-39 age range (the most common age range of students) at 43.1% of all cases,” reads the OSHA complaint. “Moreover, faculty are prohibited from requiring masks, and the university is not making widespread accommodations for distancing in face-to-face classes (as they did in the previous academic year).”

A petition circulated at ISU notes that decisions made this spring marking a return to normalcy on the campuses reflected a very different stage in the coronavirus pandemic, before the onslaught of the highly infectious delta variant which has led to an explosion of new cases that have once again pushed hospital systems in other states to the brink of collapse.

“While vaccines provide strong protection from the Delta variant, we do not have good estimates of what proportion of our students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated,” the letter reads. “Currently, around 60% of adults in Iowa are vaccinated. If the ISU community mirrors those numbers, 40% of us are unvaccinated, meaning thousands of us are at heightened risk.”

Like the other letters, the UI petition also calls for reinstating flexible working and learning arrangements to allow those who are at risk to participate in an online or hybrid setting, as they did during the previous academic year.

“For faculty, students, and staff who are parents of children under 12 the decisions they are facing are difficult and filled with risk,” the petition reads. “Even missing one week of class is a significant disruption in terms of pedagogy and student learning outcomes.”

Faculty, staff and students also note the “politically charged” nature of implementing the mandates, but called on administrators to prioritize public health and safety. Over the course of the pandemic, Gov. Kim Reynolds has repeatedly resisted public health mandates aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, which has killed some 6,210 Iowans.

In May, Reynolds signed a bill into law banning school districts from implementing their own mask mandates. Cities and counties are also barred from passing mask mandates that affect private property.

“While [we] recognize that our public universities are subjected to intense political pressures, [we] also feel that the morality of our academic institutions is at stake,” reads the UI petition. “We are at risk of losing faculty, students, and staff who seek opportunities at academic institutions that have mandated vaccines for Covid and can institute mask wearing.”

Even as peer institutions such as the University of Minnesota, University of Illinois, University of Indiana, Michigan State University and others mandate vaccines, the Iowa Board of Regents has resisted taking the step. Instead, the BOR is “strongly encouraging” vaccines, which it says are “by far the best protection against COVID”.

“The Board and its universities have been very clear that we support the COVID-19 vaccines and will continue to strongly encourage all our faculty, staff and students to receive it,” a statement from BOR spokesperson Josh Lehman reads in part. “We encourage individuals to wear a mask or other face-covering while on campus, and anyone who wishes to wear a mask may do so.”

Lehman says the BOR will continue to evaluate its approach but says the Board’s “guiding principle” for the upcoming school year is to give students “as much of a traditional educational experience and student life activities as possible”.

But as the ISU petition notes, despite widespread hopes for a return to normalcy, “[t]hings have now changed” with the onslaught of the delta variant, with the average number of new cases in Iowa higher than it’s been in six months, according to a New York Times analysis.

“We have a new wave of COVID coursing through Iowa. It’s really bad right now,” Martin said. “We feel like we need a lot more protection rather than less protection.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter