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Iowa regents require universities to return to pre-COVID operations
Campuswide mask mandates lifted; vaccines encouraged but not required
Iowa’s Board of Regents on Thursday lifted the state of emergency it imposed last March and imposed a mandate, effective July 1, that all faculty and staff “return to campus to the extent their traditional (pre-pandemic) employment responsibilities require.”
Board President Mike Richards also is requiring the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa in the fall semester “return to offering in-person academic coursework and educational experiences to the same extent such academic coursework or educational experiences were offered in-person prior to the pandemic.”
All three public universities recently wrapped their spring semesters with in-person graduation celebrations — in addition to virtual commencement ceremonies.
UNI summer courses started May 10; ISU summer classes started Monday; and the UI summer term started Tuesday. Their fall semesters are scheduled to start Aug. 23.
The three universities said three months ago they plan to offer mostly in-person instruction in the fall — although they’ve said things like plexiglass barriers could remain in place and cameras could continue being used for hybrid options.
Richards in his statement Thursday said the universities “may continue to explore hybrid or distance learning academic coursework and educational experiences in consultation with the board office” and in accordance with board policy.
“The institutions are expected to resume traditional student life activities and opportunities effective for the fall 2021 semester,” Richards said.
Regarding mask mandates, Richards announced effective immediately no faculty, staff, students, or visitors will be required to wear face coverings — noting exceptions for UI Hospitals and Clinics, campus buses, veterinary medicine facilities, research labs, and other health care settings.
All three universities this week pulled down their campuswide mask mandates, although an ISU campus message noted that during the summer term “face coverings may be required in learning spaces or research laboratories as determined by individual faculty members.”
That message from ISU President Wendy Wintersteen and senior vice presidents also said:
- Faculty and staff in their individual enclosed smaller offices can require face coverings for themselves and visitors.
- Face coverings continue to be required for health care settings and everyone on buses (CyRide) and other forms of public transportation.
Both ISU and UI specified their mask mandate reversal was for “fully vaccinated” individuals.
Although ISU warned that whether a person is wearing a face covering shouldn’t be used to determine his or her vaccination status.
“A person who is vaccinated may choose to continue wearing a face covering for other health or personal reasons,” according to the ISU message. “We ask all members of the campus community to be respectful and supportive of others’ right to wear a face covering and to not ask others about their vaccination status.”
In a UI Q&A on the changed guidelines, officials said supervisors can’t ask employees their vaccination status. And they can’t, as a department, require employees get a COVID vaccine.
“The university encourages employees to be vaccinated, but vaccinations are voluntary,” according to the UI Q&A. “Supervisors should avoid any communication that may be perceived to pressure, force or coerce any employee to obtain a COVID-19 vaccination.”
As to whether an employee who chooses not to get vaccinated can be restricted in the work they perform and where they perform it, UI officials said no.
“The COVID-19 vaccination is not mandatory at this time and should not be a factor in assigning work, including whether someone can work on-site,” according to the Q&A.
Closing the distance gap
Although the UI, for example, had planned to keep some of its larger lectures online this fall, that point has been removed with the board’s guidance that “classrooms and other campuses spaces will operate at their normal (pre-pandemic) capacity.”
“Faculty, staff, students, and visitors to campus will not be required to maintain physical distancing,” Richards said. “This guideline shall not apply to UIHC, veterinary medicine facilities, research laboratories, or any other health care operation, setting, or service.”
Although all three campuses and the board are “strongly” encouraging campus community members to get vaccinated, and making resources available to do so, Richards in his statement stressed, “The institutions under the jurisdiction of the Board of Regents (with the exception of University of Iowa Health Care) may not impose any requirement that students, faculty or staff receive or provide evidence of having received a vaccination for COVID-19.”
Thursday’s Board of Regents mandates and the university reversals come after lawmakers passed and then Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law a measure barring K-12 schools, cities, and counties from mandating masks.
Richards said his decision to end the board’s emergency proclamation was based on the highly effective vaccines, their wide availability and that more than 1.2 million Iowans have been fully vaccinated.
“In consideration of significant improvements in the management of COVID-19 both in the state of Iowa and nationally, I am lifting the state of emergency at the Board of Regents institutions effective immediately,” Richards said.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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