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Students pen a letter of support for UNI professor sanctioned for requiring masks in class

The University of Northern Iowa campus
Courtesy of University of Northern Iowa
University of Northern Iowa
Students of a University of Northern Iowa professor who was sanctioned for requiring masks in his classroom have penned a letter of support for their teacher. Biology professor Steve O'Kane has been warned he may be disciplined further or even fired if he doesn't follow university policy, which prohibits requiring masks.

Students of an Iowa professor who was sanctioned for requiring masks in his classroom are voicing their support for the teacher. Students in Steve O’Kane’s plant systematics class at the University of Northern Iowa penned a letter of support for him Tuesday, defending his actions to “protect the health and safety of students in his classroom."

Students in O’Kane’s plant systematics class have continued to meet on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons during their regularly scheduled time, even after UNI officials relieved the biology professor of his in-person teaching duties.

On Tuesday, the students released a statement of support for O’Kane, saying that they too are being punished as a result of the disciplinary actions against him. The letter has been forwarded to administrators and student government leaders at UNI as well as the Iowa Board of Regents.

“The University’s decision to remove professor O’Kane only punished the student’s of his class who are left without a professor and with no plan on how this course will proceed. Unfortunately, this action taken by the University was not based in science and did not take into consideration the severe consequences it would have on the students of his class,” the letter reads in part.

In O’Kane’s absence, the dozen or students in the high-level class dedicated to plant collecting, field work and laboratory analysis remain in limbo, saying they’re unsure when or if another professor will take over the class that some need in order to graduate.

Senior and biology student Brian Yarahmadi reasons that no other professor at the school has the expertise to oversee the class, saying the university may instead work with students on a case by case basis to help them earn the credits.

Yarahmadi says students in the class willingly went along with O’Kane’s mask mandate, saying that the biology professor was simply “following the science” on coronavirus precuations.

“For us it was scary because he was just a biology professor who was following the science,” Yarahmadi said. “And you saw what they did to him and how they came after him. And it was vicious. And it was scary to a lot of us. So we wanted to say that we support him.”

Last week, the university formalized disciplinary actions against O’Kane after he told The Cedar Rapids Gazette he was requiring students wear masks in his classroom or see their grades lowered. O’Kane has been relieved of his in-person teaching duties, though he is still permitted to teach online. He has also been ordered to complete a training session on professional responsibility and will not be eligible for merit pay.

The university has also warned O’Kane that he may be disciplined further or even fired if he doesn’t follow school policy, which prohibits requiring masks. The Board of Regents has refused to adjust its guidance for state universities, even after the rise of the highly infectious delta variant.

Yarahmadi criticized the regents' guidance, which university administrators say prevents them from setting their own policies.

“I’d obviously rather have Dr. O’Kane and the doctors and professors at these colleges make these decisions for me rather than the Board of Regents, who I think this shows don’t have the students’ best interests in mind,” Yarahmadi said. “And I think people have known that for a long time. And this kind of just is another example.”

Asked for comment on the students’ letter, regents' spokesperson Josh Lehman said, “we appreciate hearing from the students at our public universities." The UNI University Relations office had not responded to a request for comment by late Tuesday afternoon.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter