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IOWA CITY — Despite university predictions for a vastly different academic year than last, University of Iowa faculty again are raising safety concerns as they head into a fall semester with COVID-19 cases rising — echoing demands from a year ago for stronger administrative stances and public health precautions.
The UI Faculty Senate and the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors this week sent new UI President Barbara Wilson letters asking her to chart a different course than her predecessor, Bruce Harreld.
“AAUP asks that you exercise your discretion as president to clarify and maximize the actions that faculty may take to protect their own health and that of their colleagues, students, and families, while still protecting the integrity of the academic enterprise,” according to an AAUP letter sent Wednesday to Wilson. “Of course, doing so would mean adopting a different approach than that taken by your predecessor and by some guidance currently offered.”
So far, none of Iowa’s public universities have mandated masks or vaccines — following a Board of Regents guidance issued in May promising a pre-pandemic academic experience without such mandates.
But all three universities have encouraged vaccination and masking, and Wilson in response to the faculty letters said she intends to stay the course for now.
“I hear and understand the concerns of some of our campus community, and I have been in constant communication with the presidents at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, and Board of Regents leadership,” Wilson said in a statement.
“As we move forward, I will continue to strongly advocate for vaccinations and urge individuals to wear masks indoors on campus. I encourage all of us to do that, as we work hard to protect the face-to-face campus experience we love.”
The UI’s approach, she said, involves:
- Making vaccines widely accessible;
- Conducting wastewater testing of residence halls;
- Continuing to monitor state, county and campus pandemic metrics;
- Encouraging indoor masking;
- And enhancing building precautions, like enhanced filtration.
“In partnership with the Board of Regents and the other regents universities, we will continue to monitor positivity rates and hospitalizations in the city, county, and state,” Wilson said. “If we need to adjust our practices, we will do so, in compliance with Board of Regents guidance and Iowa state law.”
New cases, hospitalizations
In making their appeals, the AAUP and UI Faculty Senate noted the shifting nature of the pandemic as the delta variant drives up cases and hospitalizations.
Between Aug. 4 and Wednesday, Iowa added 4,872 COVID-19 cases, for a seven-day average of 696 new cases a day — the highest since Feb. 10. UI’s home county of Johnson added 162 new cases over the week, for a seven-day average of 23 — the highest since April 26.
Hospitalizations in Iowa over the week jumped from 201 to 355 — the highest since 360 on Feb. 4, according to The Gazette’s analysis and tracking. COVID-19 patients in intensive care surged from 61 to 103, the most since Jan. 10. And those on ventilators doubled from 24 to 49 — the most since Feb. 4.
“There are a lot of confused and worried people on campus,” said the Faculty Senate letter, signed by its President Teresa Marshall, dentistry professor; past Faculty Senate President Joseph Yockey, law professor; and Vice President Ana Rodriguez-Rodriguez, associate professor.
“So, our plea to UI leadership: please explain the basis for your public health decision-making. Is it driven by science? Are there actions you want to take but cannot because of political pressure?”
Faculty Senate demands
The faculty leaders noted that throughout the pandemic the UI has committed to following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC now advises even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas of substantial or high virus transmission including Johnson County.
Most campuses in the Big Ten have imposed updated mask mandates — save the University of Nebraska, which like Iowa’s public universities is encouraging but not requiring them for fully vaccinated people. Additionally, some Big Ten campuses — like Northwestern University and the universities of Indiana, Minnesota, Maryland, and Michigan — are mandating vaccines in some form for the upcoming start of the 2021-22 school year.
“Presumably UI leadership will remain true to its word and follow the CDC and Big Ten by issuing a mask mandate for the fall?” UI Faculty Senate leaders wrote. “So far, the answer appears to be ‘no.’”
Those leaders called on Wilson to take a data-driven, peer-assessed approach to her pandemic leadership.
“The campus incentive plan is to offer students a $10 gift card in exchange for proof of vaccination. That’s it. Unlike our peer institutions, we are not offering incentives like scholarship lotteries or additional health fees for the unvaccinated,” according to the letter.
“Maybe those ideas wouldn’t work. We’re not epidemiologists nor public health experts. But those people are around, and UI leadership should explain in detail why its current vaccine policy will — or will not — adequately protect students, faculty, and staff when classes resume.”
They called for the same approach on masks.
Classes begin Aug. 23 — in two weeks — and UI students begin moving into the residence halls this weekend.
UI provost guidance to instructors said they can’t ask students to wear masks in class, in their offices or in any UI building. And it urged caution in discussing masks and vaccines at all.
The local AAUP chapter acknowledged in its letter the state and regent restrictions against such requirements.
“We are NOT asking you to abrogate state law or regents’ policy,” the AAUP letter said. “But we do ask that you interpret those laws and policies as narrowly as possible to permit reasonable protective measures to be taken.”
And it offered the following suggestions:
- Allow faculty to ask students to wear masks in classes, offices and other in-person encounters so long as they say explicitly masks aren’t required;
- Allow faculty and staff to refuse to meet in person in an office or small space with anyone who declines to wear a mask, offering an online or outdoor meeting instead;
- Readily approve requests to teach classes online, “where the request is prompted by reasonable fears for the safety of the instructor or the instructor’s family”;
- Discipline any faculty, staff or student who “knowingly endangers others by attending a class or another university event” while infected with COVID-19 or in a quarantine window;
- And offer COVID-19 testing 24 hours a day.
In response to the AAUP letter, Wilson offered to meet with the concerned faculty “to discuss our plans and your suggestions” and thanked them for their “willingness to help as we plan for the next couple of weeks.”
The regents’s directive from May, which has not been updated since the new CDC guidance, bars requirements for masks, vaccines and physical distancing. Board spokesman Josh Lehman this week said the regents “will continue to evaluate as we move forward.”
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