Editorial | Regents’ COVID-19 policy is failing to protect the community

Thousands of students have returned to campus. To combat the rise of COVID-19 cases that may come with it, the University of Iowa and Board of Regents must enact stricter COVID-19 guidelines and vaccine incentives.


DI Editorial Board

The people in charge of keeping us safe are failing.

While Hawkeye students are ecstatic about the return of a “normal semester,” we may instead see a replay of 2020 under the veneer of normality.

The state Board of Regents’ and University of Iowa’s fall COVID-19 policies are dangerous, and they will inevitably lead to the spread of the virus — a spread that could have been prevented.

As the semester begins, the UI faculty and the Iowa City community are worried about the return of thousands of Hawkeye students, with no clue of their vaccination status and no mask mandate in sight — and they’re right to be.

Enforcing smarter COVID-19 policies

With the rise of the delta variant, Johnson County has experienced an increase in community transmission. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the variant is more contagious, and while breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people are rare, infected people can still spread the virus just as easily.

The chance of infection rises when thousands of students enter university buildings, passing one another in narrow hallways or crowding into lecture halls. The responsibility for this fully preventable disaster lies at the feet of the regents. The regents need to implement a mask requirement in university buildings now, and the UI needs to listen to the concerns of its faculty.

It is no secret that the current policies endorsed by the regents are negligent. They have the authority to require masks on campus, yet are taking cues from the governor’s office and lawmakers in Des Moines, not public health experts on their own campuses.

Our leaders cannot ignore the concerns from faculty who don’t feel like their work environment is safe. Why should we wait for an outbreak to occur when the regents could implement safety measures to prevent one from happening in the first place?

In a letter addressed to UI president Barbara Wilson, faculty pointed out that the UI is the only school in the Big Ten to not mandate masks. They strongly encouraged the regents to enforce one, arguing that universal masking will protect students and faculty alike from the threat of the delta variant.

However, UI administration said they would not change current COVID-19 guidelines despite the faculty petition and concerns.

To be fair, the UI is certainly in a tough spot. It is governed by the regents and gets its policies from them. And the regents don’t seem interested in budging on their position that flouts all notions of public health.

But we’ve seen what happens when local leaders decide to prioritize public health over politics — last week, Iowa City instituted a mask mandate, seemingly in direct opposition to state law.

We’re no legal scholars, but the UI should explore all options to require students to follow that directive. What’s preventing the UI from saying that members of the community are expected to follow city law when on university premises? The responsibility ultimately lies with the regents, but the university can and should be more aggressive about keeping its students and faculty staff.

Vaccinations and vaccine incentives are key

Our first line of defense against the virus is vaccination. When leadership has failed at every level, we as students also have a responsibility to protect our community. If the regents won’t implement a mask mandate, and claim a vaccine mandate goes against state law, students need to take it upon themselves to do the right thing and get vaccinated. Otherwise, we will put not only the UI population at risk, but the entire Iowa City community.

Increasing the vaccination rate among the student population is key to ensuring a safe return to Iowa City this fall. Many students are itching for a return to pre-pandemic college life, and getting vaccinated is one of our best tools to further this goal. We have ample evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines are both safe and effective, even against the delta variant.

We often forget that our actions as students do not only affect us, but every Iowa City resident. It’s no coincidence that the first major COVID-19 spike in Johnson County coincided with the start of class last August. If they have not already, students should make a plan to get vaccinated to protect fellow classmates and other residents of the city. Johnson County is currently classified as a “very high risk,” area for unvaccinated people, but there is an opportunity to lower the positivity rate if students get vaccinated.

Although many universities across the country have implemented vaccine mandates, the regents have made it clear that this will not happen in Iowa because of a law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that banned vaccine passports in May. If the UI were to require proof of vaccination to attend school, the regents claims that the institution would be violating state law. The implications of defying this law would result in denial of “grants or contracts funded by state revenue.” Because lawmakers have taken away this option for cheap political points, the responsibility falls on us as students to get vaccinated.

On top of that, the UI has a duty to aggressively encourage vaccinations and proactively implement policies conducive to raising the student vaccination rate. While the current vaccine incentive program offers $10 Iowa City Downtown District gift cards, the university should explore further options.

Universities across the country have set vaccine incentive programs that seem to be much more convincing than the opportunity to obtain a measly $10 gift card. Missouri State University has opted to give away $150,000 in a prize raffle. Students can win iPads, laptops, and even free tuition, housing, and parking.

Some schools have chosen a different approach, instead of charging a fee for students who are still unvaccinated at the beginning of the semester. The jury is still out on which vaccine incentive program works the best, but it’s hard to believe that a $10 gift card could be more convincing than a chance at free tuition or a new laptop.

We’re in this together. Students must take it upon themselves to get vaccinated for their own best interest, as well as for the safety of the entire community. If administrators are even somewhat serious about curbing COVID-19 on our campus, UI should take the simple step toward bolstering the vaccine incentive program.

Government officials and institutions at every level in Iowa have failed to keep us safe. And despite the limitations imposed up the ladder, the UI is not doing enough to care for the health of Iowa City.

By requiring masks in whatever way possible and providing stronger vaccine incentives, the UI could not only help stop the delta variant, but also allow us to return to normal faster and safer.

Editorials reflect the majority opinion of the DI Editorial Board and not the opinion of the publisher, Student Publications Inc., or the University of Iowa.

Editorial board members are Caleb McCullough, Rylee Wilson, Josie Fischels, Hannah Pinski, Shahab Khan, and Sophie Stover.