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IOWA CITY — Rephrasing earlier guidance that explicitly prohibited instructors from asking students to wear masks, barred them from inquiring about vaccination and dissuaded them from even discussing either issue, the University of Iowa has disseminated new COVID-related directives.
In a revised “Fall 2021 FAQ for Instructors,” the UI Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost answered “yes” to the question of whether instructors can make statements in the classroom about mask use and vaccinations.
“We encourage you to ensure students are aware of university guidelines and protocols. Additionally, to encourage students to wear face masks, you may wear a face mask yourself and share why you have made that decision, if you are comfortable doing so,” according to the guidance from Provost Kevin Kregel’s office. “You are encouraged to post university signage in your office and you may encourage students individually and in group settings to wear a face mask.”
Previous guidance — which sparked broad criticism from UI faculty and staff concerned about free speech and academic freedom — stated: “You may not ask students to wear a mask or face covering.”
“Additionally, faculty, staff and visitors to campus may not be required to wear a mask or face covering,” according to the directive that said instructors can’t ask about vaccination status “to ensure that everyone feels respected.”
In urging care with statements about masks or vaccination, the old guidance suggested, “If you are asked, you may share your personal choice regarding the decision to wear a mask or be vaccinated without making a statement regarding the value of the choice or any value judgments about decisions not to be vaccinated.
“Remember that there is a power differential between you and your students, and they may perceive you asking them to wear a mask or if they have been vaccinated as a requirement that they do so.”
The revised guidance states instructors can have discussions or make statements regarding mask use “as long as all sides have a voice in the conversation” and it isn’t the classroom focus. And it maintained instructors “should be especially mindful to avoid discussing a student’s vaccination status.”
“Additionally, you may not penalize or criticize students for not wearing face masks; provide tangible incentives, such as extra credit or a higher grade, to students who wear face masks; or direct students to sit in different areas of the classroom based on whether they are wearing face masks.”
The new guidance provided instructors with a statement to use in a welcome message or other communication to students:
“The University of Iowa strongly encourages students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The university also encourages students, faculty, and staff to wear a face mask while on campus, and strongly encourages the use of face masks in all classroom settings and during in-person office hours. However, face mask usage is not required except on Cambus and in specified research and health care settings.”
Another option, per the new guidance, stated:
“You should feel comfortable wearing a mask if you choose. I will be wearing a mask during in-person classes and/or during in-person office hours because … ,” with the provost offering optional examples like, “I live with children who are not able to be vaccinated.’’
In a statement, Kregel said his office never meant to limit free speech.
“Given the importance we place on academic freedom and free speech, I’m sorry we didn’t realize that’s how it would be perceived,” Kregel said. “When we heard those concerns from some of our faculty, we reviewed the document from their perspective and worked together to make changes.”
The aim, he said, was always simply to remind faculty and staff that students will come into their classrooms with differing perspectives and it’s “important to show respect even when we disagree.”
“There is a power differential between students and faculty, and we wanted them to be mindful of how they approached these conversations, which can be extremely personal and emotional.”
Kregel in his comments noted the “highly politicized climate” and import of approaching topics with care.
“We were trying to provide guidance that would safeguard both students and faculty in those exchanges,” he said. “Again, I’m glad we received the feedback we did. It provided us an important opportunity to clarify and improve the guidance.”
None of Iowa’s public universities are mandating masks or vaccines, on direction from the state Board of Regents. That decision has drawn faculty ire as well, with hundreds across the three campuses writing letters and launching petitions asking administrators and the board to reconsider.
Guidance for Iowa State University
Iowa State Associate Provost of Academic Programs Ann Marie VanDerZanden on Tuesday also disseminated a fall message for instructors, including guidance on syllabus statements. That message reminded instructors that ISU’s new “free expression syllabus statement” is mandatory and COVID-specific statements encouraging masking and vaccination are recommended.
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