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A state health and safety official pointed to Iowa’s new law barring mask mandates in schools in response to a federal workplace safety complaint filed last month by the University of Northern Iowa’s faculty union that accuses the Board of Regents and UNI administration of prohibiting COVID safety measures.
“A recent statute addresses this matter,” Douglas Rustan, with Iowa Workforce Development, told Christopher Martin, a UNI professor and vice president of United Faculty, in response to the complaint he filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Rustan cited language from the new law barring “a school district, the superintendent, or chief administering officer of a school district, and the authorities in charge of each accredited nonpuplic school” from adopting, enforcing or implementing a mask mandate.
And he suggested Martin seek guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on “other measures that do not conflict with state law.”
United Faculty President Becky Hawbaker told The Gazette the response “misreads Iowa Code and does not address any of the safety concerns raised.” And, she said, Rustan hasn’t responded to United Faculty’s follow-up request the state address their specific safety concerns.
“It doesn't include any other direction about closing the complaint or asking for more information,” Hawbaker said.
In denying a records request from The Gazette, an official with Iowa Workforce Development said the UNI faculty complaint remains open.
United Faculty filed its complaint Aug. 13 — 10 days before tens of thousands of students were to convene on campus for the promise of a more normal fall semester.
UNI faculty cited that promise in their complaint, noting the Board of Regents in May barred its public universities from taking the same level of COVID precautions it did last year — like imposing mask mandates, allowing online working and teaching arrangements, and ensuring socially distanced instructional spaces.
“Effective immediately, faculty, staff, students, and visitors to campus will not be required to wear a mask or other face covering,” the complaint stated, quoting regent policy, which goes on to bar the institutions — save UI Health Care — from imposing “any requirement that students, faculty, or staff receive or provide evidence of having received a vaccination for COVID-19.”
Things have changed
Since May, however, a lot has changed, according to United Faculty’s complaint.
For starters, the state has seen a leveling off in its vaccination rate — which currently sits at 48.6 percent, up one percentage point from the 47.6 percent it was at when United Faculty filed the complaint, and 57.3 percent of Iowans over age 12, the minimum age for the vaccine.
Additionally, the more contagious delta variant has emerged.
The faculty noted Black Hawk County — home to UNI — has been classified by the CDC as having “high” community spread of the virus. Current numbers show 56 percent of last week’s positive cases were among those under age 40, including 23 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds.
“In this resurgent wave of COVID-19, UNI faculty, staff, and students are teaching in workplace environments that are typically small and crowded,” according to the complaint. “UNI and the Board of Regents do not require vaccinations (in fact, UNI is prohibited from requiring them for student admission, unlike the commonly required MMR vaccinations for other diseases, and faculty cannot inquire about anyone’s vaccination status).”
The complaint also cites the prohibition against mask mandates and notes UNI “is not making widespread accommodations for distancing in face-to-face classes (as they did in the previous academic year), or enabling faculty — even those with preexisting health conditions — to now opt for switching to online instruction.”
Students not masked
The “unsafe working conditions” affect about 650 faculty members, and Hawbaker told The Gazette that union leadership over the weekend plans to poll their peers about what they’re experiencing in the classroom.
“But the consistent response we get when we ask colleagues or observe classes by walking by is that less than 10 percent of students are currently choosing to mask, with a few exceptions, even after faculty proactively communicate strong recommendations for masking (sometimes including personal medical information about themselves and their family),” she said. “One of my classes is all PE/health majors, and only one student chose to mask.”
She reported one tenured UNI faculty member has resigned because a “telework/accommodations agreement could not be reached.”
“Because of the budget situation, many classes are larger than usual, above previous caps, and unlike last year there is no social distancing in the classrooms,” Hawbaker said. “So imagine a lecture hall of 160 immovable seats, completely full.”
Faculty members at Iowa’s other public universities have reported similar compliance concerns. University of Iowa assistant professor Susan Meerdink on the first day of classes tweeted: “I taught 135 students today. The two rooms were packed with no open seats. Only about 40 students had masks.
“When I described why I am wearing a mask and having virtual office hours (1-year-old at home, his grandpa doing chemo treatment), I got eye rolls and dramatic sighs,” she wrote.
Another UI employee tweeted that she was told by human resources to take down signs that read, “please wear a mask.”
“We can’t even passively ask pretty please in pandemic surge because of GOP regents and gov,” she wrote.
Plea to leaders
Faculty at all three campuses have written regents and university leadership, pleading they reverse course and follow many of their Big Ten peers by allowing mask and — in some cases — vaccination mandates.
In United Faculty’s Aug. 14 letter to the Board of Regents, members wrote: “We recognize that this is a politically charged issue, but at the end of the day, each of you must answer to your own conscience or higher power whether you did all you could to protect the most vulnerable under your care.”
“It should not take another spike in infections, hospitalizations or deaths for you to act to prevent what is predictable, given the science and the experience of other states,” the UNI faculty letter stated. “We should not risk the death or long-term COVID disability of one university employee or student because we did not act soon enough.
“Please, do the right thing. Speak truth to power. Stand up for the thousands of regents employees and students who depend on your safeguarding.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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