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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
With Iowa eager to put COVID-19 in the rear view mirror, Board of Regents President Mike Richards in May lifted the state of emergency he imposed in March 2020 and mandated Iowa’s public universities return to pre-pandemic operations.
As part of that mandate, Richards required campuses offer in-person instruction to the same extent they did before; barred mask mandates; prohibited social distancing directives; and blocked vaccine requirements.
Richards at the time said he was lifting the state of emergency and blocking the campus precautions “in consideration of significant improvements in the management of COVID-19 both in the state of Iowa and nationally,” including and widely-available free vaccines.
But where positive COVID-19 cases had dropped into the 100s at the time — with Iowa reporting 167 on May 20, when Richards made his comments — a new delta variant of the disease gathered momentum for another surge in August, just as students, faculty, and staff were returning for the fall semester.
More than 1,600 positive cases were reported in Iowa on Aug. 23 — the first day of classes at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. But even with public universities nationally resurrecting mask mandates — and imposing new vaccine requirements — Iowa’s Board of Regents denied the faculty and staff calls for doing the same.
“I write today to advocate for vaccine and mask mandates/incentivization and online options for teaching and meeting,” UI faculty members wrote to the board Aug. 4.
Richards in September said, “We do not intend to put a mask mandate in at this point in time.” And, to the question of whether the board might allow the campuses to individually decide, Richards said, “No, I think that will be decided at the regent level.”
What’s happened since
President Joe Biden in September unveiled a vaccine strategy requiring shots for federal workers, federal contractors, companies of more than 100 employees and health care providers receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding.
Many U.S. universities interpreted Biden’s mandate as including them — and moved to require employee vaccinations, like Rutgers University, Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the entire public college system in Mississippi.
But Iowa regents haven’t made any changes to the guidance blocking vaccine mandates at the public universities. And officials earlier this month said they now have more time to figure out their next move — with the Biden administration extending the deadline for compliance to Jan. 4.
“We’re working with the governor, and we’re working with the Attorney General’s Office, and our own legal staff, and the federal government,” Richards told reporters.
Gov. Kim Reynolds reacted to the Biden requirement by joining lawsuits over the federal vaccine mandates and by signing into law a measure giving workers of Iowa businesses more leeway to claim medical or religious exemption.
“We're working through the whole process, trying to understand exactly what it means for us in Iowa,” Richards told reporters. “We want to comply with all state and federal laws. We have state laws, too.”
The regents took a step in that direction Nov. 4 by adopting a new board policy — aligning with the new state law — spelling out when an employee under regent jurisdiction “is legally entitled to an exemption or accommodation from any COVID-19 vaccine or face-covering requirement.”
The regent policy carves out exemptions for “a sincerely held religious belief, observance, or practice.” That includes “any non-theistic moral or ethical belief, observance, or practice which is sincerely held with the strength of a religious view.”
The policy allows universities to require written statements from employees wanting a vaccine exemption. And it lets UI Health Care deny requests for exemptions.
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