University of Missouri President Choi won’t ask curators to reconsider vote against mask rule

University Of Missouri
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(Missouri Independent) – The University of Missouri’s Columbia campus will begin the spring semester as planned Tuesday with no option for online classes, masking, or vaccination requirements, UM System President and campus Chancellor Mun Choi wrote to faculty leaders Friday.

Choi’s response to concerns raised in a letter from the Executive Committee of the campus Faculty Council was sent just hours before the state Department of Health and Senior Services reported that COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU use statewide reached a new record Tuesday, with 3,526 inpatients and 715 ICU cases.

Only 15% of ICU beds in the state remained available on Tuesday.

“We don’t have the support for an indoor mask mandate,” Choi wrote. “We will continue to ask that all members of the Mizzou community wear a mask indoors.”

The Board of Curators on Tuesday rejected Choi’s plea to require masks on the system’s four campuses. Only three of nine board members supported his request and only two backed a classroom- and lab-only mask rule.

In response to the letter’s request for a university vaccination requirement, Choi wrote that the UM System is complying with federal rules. An executive order from President Joe Biden requiring federal contractors to have vaccine mandates was enforced until it was suspended by the courts in December.

There will be no shift to online coursework, even temporarily, Choi wrote.

“Instructors are expected to deliver the class in the modality that it is assigned (in-person, online, or blended/hybrid),” Choi wrote. “However, instructors should not attend class if they are not feeling well or are in isolation or quarantine.”

The response on masks and vaccines wasn’t surprising, said Kathleen Trauth, associate professor of engineering and chair of the Faculty Council.

“I think the issues where there was the request regarding mask mandate and vaccine was not unexpected because those are in the purview of the Board of Curators and they have spoken,” she said.

She is disappointed that Choi will not allow coursework to move online because many classroom spaces don’t allow for social distancing, she said.

The Faculty Council’s concerns are shared by the Intercampus Faculty Cabinet, which has representatives from all four campuses, she said.

“We have been in communication with President Choi and expressed concern about masking and some of the tight classrooms,” she said.

The system’s flagship campus is in Boone County, which has more than 3,200 active coronavirus infections, almost three times the highest number at any previous point in the pandemic. The local health department is reporting 415 cases per day, also nearly three times higher than at any previous time.

On the Columbia campus itself, the 262 active infections among students are the highest level since Sept. 15, 2020, and the 119 active infections among faculty and staff reported Friday is a new peak.

Columbia Public Schools announced Friday that it will take a three-day break starting next Friday in an effort to control infections among students and staff, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.

The letter from the committee said members were “extremely appreciative” of Choi’s advocacy for a mask rule during the Tuesday special board meeting.

“Faculty are reporting concerns to us about keeping themselves and their students safe. This is particularly worrisome for faculty and students who are immunocompromised, are medically ineligible for vaccines, and/or at higher risk for COVID complications,” the letter states. “These students have unequal access to the classroom and professor if they choose to keep themselves safer.”

The omicron variant has hit Missouri hard and the worst infection rates are in the state’s largest urban areas, where three of the four UM System campuses are located. On Friday, the state Department of Health and Senior Services reported an additional 9,904 coronavirus infections, bringing the total reported for the month to 154,449.

By Tuesday, the department had reported more cases so far in January than in any previous month of the pandemic.

Boone County has the fifth-highest infection rate for the month among the state’s 118 county and city health department jurisdictions and the fourth-highest percentage increase of cases over December totals.

Choi has not received any similar communications from faculty on the campuses in St. Louis, Kansas City or Rolla, spokeswoman Stephanie Fleming said Friday. 

Masks will be required in indoor spaces on the UMSL campus because of a St. Louis County-imposed mask requirement, she said.

If local governments in Columbia, Rolla, or Kansas City enact mask requirements, the university will comply.

The Executive Committee also asked for a campus coronavirus vaccine requirement and a free supply of highly protective masks.

The university will not implement a vaccine requirement, Choi wrote but will provide masks.

“We have ordered a stock of KN95 that will be available for free to faculty, staff, and students at the bookstore once they arrive,” Choi wrote.

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Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy, and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.

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