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Although administrators leading Iowa’s public universities say they can’t mandate vaccines or masks heading into a fall semester that arrives as COVID-19 cases are again on the rise, they’re encouraging their tens of thousands of students, staff and faculty get a shot and mask up.
Iowa State University leaders — in spelling out more details for the fall — announced this week the campus will encourage “all students, faculty, staff and visitors” to “wear face masks in all indoor spaces when around others.”
Additionally, ISU is encouraging everyone who’s not vaccinated to wear a face mask and physically distance whenever possible.
The University of Iowa sent messages to faculty and students encouraging masking and vaccination, as did the University of Northern Iowa, two weeks before school starts Aug. 23.
Although ISU’s message encouraging everyone on campus to wear masks indoors cited Board of Regents guidance from May, the board’s masking encouragement then was specific to “unvaccinated individuals.”
Regents President Mike Richards also said in the May 20 statement lifting his March 17, 2020, emergency order that “Effective immediately, faculty, staff, students, and visitors to campus will not be required to wear a mask or other face covering.”
ISU officials acknowledged the prohibition against requiring masks. “Faculty, staff, students, and visitors to campus may choose to wear or not wear a face mask anywhere they deem appropriate,” according to the message from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen and vice presidents including Provost Jonathan Wickert and Thielen Student Health Director Erin Baldwin.
“No one can be required to wear a face mask,” except on the campus transit system CyRide, at the student health center, in areas of the College of Veterinary Medicine and in Ames Laboratory facilities, according to regent guidance.
UNI Associate Provost for Faculty John Vallentine also indicated the administration cannot require mitigation measures, noting regent guidelines “prohibit all public universities from requiring masks or vaccinations on campus.”
“It is important not to ask individuals regarding their vaccination status due to privacy issues,” Vallentine wrote. “Students, faculty, staff, and visitors to campus are not required to wear a mask or other face covering in our campus spaces, with the exception of particular health care settings or research labs.”
University of Iowa
Although the UI has not published updated fall guidance for students and the public, it did send email messages to students and faculty this week urging masking.
“Wearing a face mask while on campus is encouraged, but is not mandatory,” UI Dean of Students Angie Reams said in her message. “Even if you are fully vaccinated, you should feel comfortable continuing to wear a mask if you choose.”
UI’s fall 2021 plans, issued earlier this year, promise a “return to offering a robust student experience typical of a Big Ten public research university,” including a President’s Block Party, football in Kinnick Stadium, tailgating, homecoming, fraternity and sorority recruitment, Hancher Auditorium performances and mostly in-person instruction.
Iowa’s other public universities have promised as much.
The UI Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost this week issued a guide for instructors barring them from asking students to wear masks in class, in their offices or in a campus building.
“You may not ask students to wear a mask or face covering,” according to the guidance. “Additionally, faculty, staff, and visitors to campus may not be required to wear a mask or face covering.”
The directive also told instructors they can’t ask about vaccination status “to ensure that everyone feels respected.” And it urged care in making statements about masks or vaccination.
“If you are asked, you may share your personal choice regarding the decision to wear a mask or be vaccinated without making a statement regarding the value of the choice or any value judgments about decisions not to be vaccinated,” according to the provost’s guidance. “Remember that there is a power differential between you and your students, and they may perceive you asking them to wear a mask or if they have been vaccinated as a requirement that they do so.”
In response to The Gazette’s questions about whether the Board of Regents plans to update its May guidance or what would happen if a university defied its earlier recommendations, board spokesman Josh Lehman said, “The universities are following the guidance” and that “we will continue to evaluate as we move forward.”
UNI’s Vallentine acknowledged the recent updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks indoors in public “if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission.”
“Since Black Hawk County is currently noted in the high zone (red), it is important for all students, faculty and staff to be prepared to follow the CDC guidance as we begin classes and meetings in-person if the transmission rates remain in the high or substantial zones,” he wrote. “As we continue to navigate our campus' response to COVID-19, please note that face coverings are encouraged, but not required.”
As of Wednesday, Johnson County around the UI had a “substantial” transmission rate and Story County around ISU had a “high” transmission rate --- both bad enough to qualify for the CDC’s more aggressive masking guidance.
No more contact tracing
Although ISU last year supplied detailed data on weekly positive cases on campus, vaccination rates and numbers of people in quarantine or isolation — broken down by students, faculty and staff — the university won’t replicate that reporting to the public this year.
“Iowa State’s COVID-19 Public Health Data website is no longer active,” according to this week’s communication.
Following the state’s lead in reducing its case investigation and contact tracing, “Iowa State is no longer providing case investigation or contact tracing for the campus community.”
“If you test positive or need to quarantine according to CDC guidance, it’s your responsibility to contact your instructor or supervisor and make arrangements for class or work,” according to the message. “Faculty will not be notified of students in their class who test positive and should follow their standard absence policies.”
The public universities still are offering virus testing and space to isolate or quarantine.
ISU is planning vaccination clinics on campus through the end of September, offering a gift card to each student who gets vaccinated.
UI Student Health will begin offering vaccines on a walk-in basis at the Iowa Memorial Union the week of Aug. 16, also offering a gift card to encourage inoculations.
And UNI Student Health is offering vaccinations to students by appointment.
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