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IOWA CITY — As tens of thousands of new and returning students poured Monday into Iowa’s public university classrooms, campus leaders delivered welcome messages of both hope and trepidation.
New University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson in her message urged vaccinations, indoor masking and social distancing when possible — in hopes of maintaining a largely in-person educational experience this year, unlike the last that forced most UI courses to go online.
“We are continually monitoring the COVID situation and meeting daily to assess the data,” Wilson wrote. “For now, with precautions, we can enjoy many of the activities and events that make this place so special.”
Faculty and staff across the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa campuses have written letters and signed petitions calling on the Board of Regents to reverse its prohibition of mask and vaccine mandates. They’ve called on campus administrators to follow many of their conference peers by requiring COVID-19 precautions including mask mandates at most Big Ten universities. Iowa’s university leaders instead have stuck to “strongly encouraging” compliance — even as Iowa City’s mayor last week tried to enact a local mask mandate that would apply to the campus. But UI officials said the campus falls under state purview and the order “does not and cannot apply.”
UI faculty leaders have challenged that take in a message to their peers.
“University administrators believe they are unable to mandate mask use, although they strongly encourage mask use,” according to the message signed by UI Faculty Senate President Teresa Marshall and others.
“Most UI faculty appear to support mandating mask use in classrooms, laboratories, clinics, and other indoor spaces,” they wrote. “As Faculty Senate officers, we support a mask mandate because it is consistent with science and current Johnson County Public Health and CDC recommendations.”
The Board of Regents has not reversed its directive from May. And the campuses are moving ahead with fewer COVID-19 precautions than last year — when, for example, large group gatherings and in-person meetings were largely canceled and residence halls limited guests.
Though the UI and UNI are continuing to publish self-reported COVID-19 case numbers, ISU is not this fall.
According to its most recent update for the Aug. 11-18 period, the UI reported 17 new student cases and 15 new employee cases, which officials said — at least partly — had to do with a self-reporting reminder.
UNI between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22 identified seven new cases of 62 tested at its Student Health Center, for an 11 percent positive rate.
Statewide, positive tests and hospitalizations have been rising since mid-July, with 18- to 29-year-olds accounting for the highest percentage of positives in the last seven days — 26 percent — followed by 30- to 39-year-olds, who accounted for 19 percent, according to state data.
Story, Black Hawk and Johnson counties — home to the public universities — have seen case rate rises in line with state trends. About 58 percent of last week’s positive cases in Story were among those age 29 and younger, and 38 percent in Black Hawk were in that age range. In Johnson County, 35 percent of new cases last week were in people age 29 or younger.
Johnson County has the state’s highest ratio of fully-vaccinated residents at nearly 60 percent. About 52 percent of Story’s residents are vaccinated and about 49 percent are vaccinated in Black Hawk.
‘I want to be in classes’
In a message Monday, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen urged vaccinations, masking and personal responsibility in making this a “successful semester,” which — unlike last year — is scheduled to continue past Thanksgiving break for all three campuses until Dec. 17.
Beyond COVID-19 concerns, Wintersteen highlighted plans to resume Cyclone football traditions and celebrate new facilities on campus — like the Stark Performance Center for student-athletes and Student Innovation Center.
The UI and UNI, too, are touting the return of football and other traditions.
UI freshman Sidda Patel, 17, of St. Charles, Ill., said she’s vaccinated, is feeling relatively safe and is eager for the typical first-year experiences on campus.
“I want to be in classes because we haven’t had that since junior year,” she told The Gazette.
In her Monday welcome message, Wilson said she’s spent her first six weeks on the job meeting with students, faculty, and staff, alumni, donors, regents, area business and community leaders and lawmakers.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she wrote, “but I have learned much and gained even more confidence that we are ready to begin a year of excellence, innovation, and hope. I know I am.”
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