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Faculty, student leaders call for mask, vaccine requirements on Montana university campuses

A call for heightened safety measures across Montana University System campuses is growing as COVID-19 cases continue their upward climb.

(Daily Montanan) One University of Montana student senator talked about being intubated in the hospital for four days before the vaccine was available, and another student talked about losing multiple family members to COVID-19, recalled Noah Durnell, student body leader at UM.

A call for heightened safety measures across Montana University System campuses is growing as COVID-19 cases continue their upward climb. Friday, the seven-day average of cases in Montana hit 604, breaking 600 for the first time since Dec. 17, 2020. 

Last week, the Associated Students of the University of Montana adopted a resolution asking the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and Board of Regents to require the vaccine for all students, faculty and staff. The resolution also demands a campus-wide mask requirement in all indoor spaces until transmission rates drop.

Durnell, ASUM president, said the measure passed with 16 yes votes, two absent senators in support, and two no votes, and students shared their stories during the discussion. The resolution, more than five pages long, outlines in detail the rationale of the student representatives.

“The vast, vast majority of them at the table are well educated and well aware that their vote yes was not just the right choice, but really the only choice when it comes to ensuring the safety of students, which is what they’re advocating for,” Durnell said. 

A similar resolution passed 38-2 last week with two abstentions in the Faculty Senate at UM, and a separate measure is under consideration with the Staff Senate with results of the vote expected Monday evening. Additionally, the Montana University Faculty Association Representatives, which represents faculty on all campuses, asked Friday that the Board of Regents and Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education reconsider safety requirements for university system campuses.

“MUSFAR is asking the BoR to reconsider its position on safety measures for the system,” said Bradford Watson, chair of MUSFAR, in the letter. “The BoR has the Constitutional Authority to govern the safety and wellbeing of the campuses, and we implore you to reconsider your position and require both vaccines and masks, regardless of vaccination status, for all indoor spaces on all MUS campuses.”

MUSFAR had asked last month for an indoor mask mandate, and in the letter Friday, it also asked for a vaccine requirement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has identified 1,023 campuses across the country that are “requiring vaccines of at least some students or employees.” The letter from Watson notes public institutions are among those mandating vaccines for the entire campus.

“With the full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on August 23, we have seen public institutions across the country institute a vaccine requirement for all members of the campus community (faculty, students and staff),” Watson wrote. “Over 600 higher education institutions, with over 200 of those being public institutions, have required vaccines for the entire campus community.”

(Durnell said vaccination exemptions granted in Montana would cover campuses, such as for people who are immunocompromised or have religious reasons for not being vaccinated, among others.)

Helen Thigpen of the Commissioner’s Office said Friday her office would review any resolutions it receives, but she was not aware of any that had been sent to date. The resolution from the UM Faculty Senate requests a response from the president and provost within five days of adoption, and UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said communication has been ongoing.

“There has not been a formal response from the President or Provost yet, but UM administrators are communicating with the campus’ shared governance leaders on a very regular basis,” Kuntz said in an email. “UM remains very pleased with our mask compliance to date, and students, faculty, staff and administrators will continue to work together to promote the benefits of getting vaccinated to the entire UM community.”

At UM, Staff Senate Chair Brady Schwertfeger said the staff resolution was constructed to resemble the other two shared governance measures. He anticipates it will be well supported based on previous discussions among senators.

Schwertfeger also noted staff have particular concerns about use of masks. Since roughly the middle of August, UM has recommended masks in most indoor spaces but required them in classroom and laboratory spaces.

“The problem is that those are two areas in which staff does not regularly traffic,” Schwertfeger said.

Rather, he said many staff members work in spaces that are student facing, such as front desks or cubicles or larger offices with open floor plans such as the registrar’s office. The Staff Senate represents roughly 800 employees at the flagship, from plumbers to administrative associates.

“So without a mask mandate in those kinds of spaces, there’s really no ability for staff to work to make their spaces safer,” he said. “So that’s kind of been the larger concern for staff since the newer mandate was put into place.”

The Staff Senate resolution calls for a campus-wide mask mandate for all indoor and crowded outdoor spaces until Missoula County is no longer designated an area of substantial transmission per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also calls for a vaccination requirement and requests that UM support the resolution to the Regents and Commissioner’s Office.

The Montana State University All Staff Council has not considered any COVID-19-related resolution, according to the campus, and neither has the MSU student body government. Marianne Brough, staff advisor to the Associated Students of MSU and director of student engagement, said the Bozeman campus is more split on the best approach to mitigate COVID-19 than the Missoula campus.

MSU initially recommended masks but then required them in instructional spaces indoors, and the administration plans to revisit the matter Oct. 1.

In the meantime, Brough said ASMSU has been hosting public comment and listening sessions and collecting information about how well mask wearing is being enforced and encouraged on campus.

“We do see really good compliance in our academic classes with students actually wearing the masks as requested,” Brough said. “I don’t think everyone is happy about it, and that’s also acceptable.”

In May, when cases were still at lower levels, the Commissioner’s Office revoked its mask mandate for the university system. A memo said campuses should consult local, state and federal authorities when developing “ongoing guidance related to masks.”

In August, the Commissioner’s Office reiterated that it did not support a comprehensive mask requirement or vaccine mandate on campuses. Faculty leaders asked at the time for reconsideration, and in the letter, MUSFAR asked again last week.

“As we begin the fall semester on our campuses throughout the MUS, we are profoundly concerned that we do not have the same tools for protecting our campus community as we did last year,” said the letter.

Durnell said he will reiterate the request to the Board of Regents this week: “Every single area of shared governance at the University of Montana campus has said they want a vaccine mandate.”

This year, the Montana Legislature adopted House Bill 702, which prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status. The resolution from the Faculty Senate at UM said the legislation “does not apply to vaccination requirements set forth for post-secondary schools.” However, the resolutions call for institutional support in litigation that emerges related to fighting HB702.