News Briefs

University of Missouri curators vote down mask rule to open spring semester

By: - January 11, 2022 10:07 am
The University of Missouri-Columbia's iconic columns, remains of the school's first building, stand in front of Jesse Hall, which houses administrative offices. (University of Missouri photo)

The University of Missouri-Columbia’s iconic columns, remains of the school’s first building, stand in front of Jesse Hall, which houses administrative offices. (University of Missouri photo)

Despite hearing from President Mun Choi that a mask rule could be the key to keeping University of Missouri campuses open, the UM Board of Curators on Tuesday morning voted down recommendations for a temporary mask requirement.

The nine-member board voted 3-6 against a plan proposed by Choi to require masks in most indoor spaces. It then voted 2-7 against a requirement to wear masks in classrooms and student labs. The rule would have been in place from the first day of classes next Tuesday for the four campuses until Feb. 3, when the board has its next meeting.

If 80 percent of Missourians wore masks, Choi told the board, it would prevent 1.1 million COVID-19 infections, according to modeling done by the University of Washington.

“According to the Mayo Clinic, masking is effective in slowing the spread,” Choi said. 

The board rejected Choi’s recommendations despite record numbers of COVID-19 patients in Missouri hospitals and the highest daily case numbers and positive test results since the coronavirus was first detected in the state in March 2020. 

In Boone County, the local health department reported 780 new infections and 2,032 active cases on Monday. Neither Columbia nor Boone County currently have mask requirements in place.

“What is the driving issue here?” curator Greg Hoberock asked. “Are we trying to protect the health of all of Columbia and Boone county or are we trying to keep our university open?”

Choi replied: “We are trying to keep our campus open,” adding that it would also help protect the community because many students work in restaurants and other locations in the city as well as in campus jobs.

The university is also seeing record or near-record cases on its Columbia campus. In its Monday report, the campus data showed 90 faculty and staff with active coronavirus infections, the most since the campus started reporting data in the fall of 2020, and 163 active infections among students. 

The student data reported Monday is down six cases from the Friday update, which was the highest number since September 2020.

Data provided online by UMKC shows 28 active student cases and 54 among faculty and staff. At Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, the smallest of the three campuses, there were 19 active student cases and five among faculty and staff. The UMSL campus does not publish case data online.

“We are developing contingency plans at the moment to address potentially critical shortages in the various units, including MUPD, the police departments at the other universities, MU Health Care, dining, (residential life) and so forth,” Choi said.

As he made the case for a mask rule, Choi noted that all other four-year universities in the state, except for Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, require masks.

The university opened the fall semester with a requirement that masks be worn in classrooms, labs and other workspaces where social distancing is not possible. The board voted in September to end that rule and the mask requirement was dropped on Oct. 15

Choi said he wanted a stricter rule, with masks in all indoor spaces except for residence halls, athletic venues and performance spaces.

“When we had a mandate for classrooms and teaching labs, we would have groups of students congregating in the hallways without masks,” Choi said.

After the board rejected both masking proposals, Choi was asked what his next steps would be.

The university will have vaccination clinics and encourage masks, he said.

“We will continue that approach,” Choi said, “and do the best we can to manage the business of the university.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget and the legislature. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 22 of his 32 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.