(Daily Montanan) With COVID-19 rates rising again just as students return to college, faculty leaders with the Montana University System asked the Board of Regents this week to reinstate a mask mandate for indoor spaces – but the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is not in support of a systemwide requirement.
“Faculty from campuses in the MUS have expressed grave concerns about the safety of everyone on their campuses, the classrooms, the labs and all public spaces,” said Bradford Watson, with the Montana University System Faculty Association Representatives, representing faculty on all campuses. “And we know that masking indoors is the most effective way, regardless of vaccination status, to keep our communities safe.”
He also said a systemwide order from the Board of Regents for indoor masks is preferable over a patchwork of separate rules from individual campuses. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday how much authority individual campuses have to instate their own mask mandates.
On Aug. 6, Commissioner Clayton Christian issued a memo about the fall semester and acknowledged the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19: “No one is happy to be dealing with another surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The memo said the Commissioner’s Office has closely monitored public health conditions, and it noted “substantial variation” in both conditions and the way local communities are addressing them.
“While OCHE is not supporting comprehensive mask requirements or vaccine mandates on our campuses, I encourage each campus to work closely with its local public health and local government authorities as they issue guidance under changing circumstances,” Christian said in the memo. “Similarly, campuses should continue to assess their event hosting plans, Covid-19 related campus operations and testing, tracing, and quarantine protocols in close coordination with local public health authorities.”
The number of COVID-19 cases has generally fallen in Montana since November, with additions in the just the double digits over periods this summer. However, this month, Montana hit more than 300 additional COVID-19 cases three days this month, a threshold it hadn’t seen since February.
At the meeting Monday, Amanda Dawsey, president of the University Faculty Association at the University of Montana, also urged the Board of Regents to issue an indoor face-covering requirement for all campuses, despite the difficulty of a one-size-fits-all policy. She said faculty are concerned about the safety of their classrooms, labs and other indoor spaces given the rising cases and continuing low vaccination rates among college-age Missoula County residents, among other factors. Just 49 percent of the eligible population in the state is fully vaccinated, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
“If the Board cannot or will not implement a systemwide mask requirement, I urge the Board to allow campuses the flexibility to require masks,” Dawsey said.
Watson, a faculty leader at Montana State University in Bozeman, thanked the regents and commissioner for their help earlier in working to keep campuses safe. He asked for support again for the fall semester and potentially spring given the fact several campuses are in hot spots, and the situation with COVID-19 can change quickly.
“We are concerned that we do not have those same tools going into this fall semester that we did last year,” Watson said.
On May 14, Commissioner Christian issued a memo immediately rescinding an earlier mask requirement for all campuses: “There is no longer a system-level mask requirement for the Montana University System.” The memo touted the change as a step forward, but also said the university system would remain nimble.
“In the coming weeks and months, my office will continue to act in partnership with the Board of Regents and consult with the Healthy MUS Task Force, statewide leaders, and with local, state, and federal public health guidance as we consider any changes to the system-level guidance above,” the memo said. “We remain vigilant and flexible, even as we celebrate this significant step toward a full return to normal operations across the MUS.”
Helen Thigpen, executive director of government relations and public affairs in the Commissioner’s Office, said Monday comments from the faculty will be considered and reviewed.
“The MUS will continue to closely monitor the progression of the pandemic and will remain flexible as conditions evolve,” she said. “It’s a challenging situation but assessments are being made on a daily basis.”