The iconic columns of the University of Missouri-Columbia campus (University of Missouri photo).
The University of Missouri will continue to require masks in classrooms as part of its COVID-19 policy but visitors to campuses for indoor social and athletic events will not have to cover their faces.
By a 5-4 vote Monday afternoon, the Board of Curators extended the current policy through Oct. 15. The vote came after three Republicans on the board were defeated in their push to lift the classroom rule for anyone who has been vaccinated.
A policy that sets different requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals “would be nearly impossible to enforce,” UM System President Mun Choi said. “We have classrooms with 200 students. It would take us 30 minutes to verify which students have been vaccinated and who is not vaccinated.”
The policy, begun in mid-July as Delta variant cases surged in the state, will remain in place until at least Oct. 15.
The university leadership thought about whether the policy could be eased, Choi said, but saw the experience of other Southeastern Conference schools and decided to continue the current rule.
“We thought about all of those options and we came up with the way that can best allow us to have in-person operations,” Choi said.
As of Monday, the flagship campus in Columbia had 40 active COVID-19 cases among students and 10 among faculty and staff. In mid-September 2020, before vaccines were available, there were more than 500 active cases on campus.
The three SEC schools that do not require masks are dealing with hundreds of cases, Choi told the board. There were 343 student cases at the University of Florida, 505 cases among students, faculty and staff at the University of Georgia and 1,523 student cases at Texas A&M University, Choi said.
At the university’s other three campuses, there are only a handful of cases. On the Kansas City campus, there were 13 students and four faculty or staff members with active COVID-19 infections as of Monday. There were 13 student cases and two faculty or staff cases at the St. Louis campus and five student and three faculty or staff cases on the Rolla campus.
If we are not going to require vaccination, I think we should require masks until we have a higher level of immunity through vaccination status.
– Curator Julia Brncic
Curator Todd Graves of Kansas City made the motion to ease the requirement and received support from Jeff Layman of Springfield and board Chair Daryl Chatman of O’Fallon.
“The key difference is it will not require masking for students that have been vaccinated, which gives them a greater incentive to get vaccinated,” Graves said.
It was unfair to those who have been vaccinated to require the masks and it does not recognize that some people are immune because they have had COVID-19, Layman said.
“We are talking about one-tenth of 1 percent of students who are positive,” Layman said. “That is a very small percent of the students to require people, in my opinion, who have been vaccinated to wear masks. And I think you could argue that a lot of these students have had this.”
Curator Julia Brncic, however, said vaccination rates are not high enough to relax the rule.
“That system has tried and it has failed,” she said. “If we are not going to require vaccination, I think we should require masks until we have a higher level of immunity through vaccination status.”
The curators discussed whether to extend the mask requirement to all indoor spaces on the four campuses but could not reach agreement.
The distinction between requiring masks in classrooms and recommending unvaccinated people wear masks in other indoor settings is whether the activity is essential and whether it is voluntary, Choi said.
Social events or sporting events, while important to university life, are not essential and participation is voluntary, he said.
“It is the teaching and learning that defines our university,” Choi said.
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