UI professors navigate semester on campus without mask mandate

The University of Iowa is the only school in the Big Ten that doesn’t require masks on campus.


Larry Phan/The Daily Iowan

Two students are seen walking in the Seamans Center at the University of Iowa on Aug. 23, 2021. Per the state Board of Regents COVID-19 mask policy, students have the option to wear a mask.

Rylee Wilson, Managing Editor

The University of Iowa has started holding most courses in person again, and instructors are grappling with a return to the classroom at the only Big Ten university that doesn’t require masks.

Professor of Biology and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Maurine Neiman said, though masks aren’t required, she wears a mask when teaching classes and with her lab group.

“I will 100 percent be wearing a mask in any situation on campus or in public in Iowa City where I’m sharing space at close proximity with people with whom I do not live,” she said.

Neiman, who also serves as the provost’s fellow for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, said she doesn’t believe that wearing a mask and getting vaccinated are personal decisions — they’re necessary for the collective good.

“I’m going to take advantage of my situation as someone with tenure and who has a relatively protected position to advocate for what I think is the right decision in a relatively black and white situation,” she said.

Neiman said she would not want anyone unvaccinated in her lab group without a “very good reason.”

“I’m going to request that students in my lab are vaccinated and wear masks, and I am going to request that students in my classes wear masks and I will encourage those students to also get vaccinated,” Neiman said. “I’m not going to ask why students are choosing to go unmasked or unvaccinated because that’s when we get into privacy concerns.”

Current COVID-19 recommendations from the university state that instructors can encourage students to wear masks by sharing why they choose to do so.

“You may not penalize or criticize students for not wearing face masks; provide tangible incentives, such as extra credit or a higher grade, to students who wear face masks; or direct students to sit in different areas of the classroom based on whether they are wearing face masks,” the guidance states.

None of Iowa’s three public universities will require masks on campus this fall. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill in May that prevents schools and local governments from mandating masks, but that doesn’t extend to the state Board of Regents. The regents aren’t requiring masks, per a directive from President Mike Richards in May.

Associate Professor of Community and Behavioral Health Paul Gilbert said he was able to move his class this semester, a small Ph.D. seminar, to a larger classroom to better accommodate social distancing.

“I see this almost as an ethical issue, that we’ve had constraints imposed externally that prevent us from really following the science-based guidelines to keep us safe,” he said. “There comes a point where, if political decisions are immoral or unethical or incorrect, do we need to follow them?”

Interactive: How universities across the Big Ten Conference are continuing to combat COVID-19

The UI is the only university in the Big Ten where masks are not required in classrooms. The regents use an additional four non-Big Ten universities as a part of its peer group — University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Texas at Austin, the University of Arizona, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

UT Austin is the only university out of the peer groups that does not require masks on campus — Texas Gov. Greg Abott signed an executive order in May similar to the one Reynolds signed, barring government entities from requiring masks.

UI President Barbara Wilson said at a press conference on Aug. 16 that the university will strongly encourage faculty, students, and staff to practice COVID-19 safety measures.

“Our emphasis this fall will be to invite people to think about community safety and encourage people to engage in health practices that will protect this great university and allow us to be on campus and in-person,” Wilson said. “That’s what everybody wants, so we have to work together.”

Hundreds of instructors and UI employees have called on the university to require masks. A petition circulated calling for the regents to institute stricter COVID-19 mitigation measures, like mandating masks and vaccines, and allow employees flexible work options.

Over 900 people have signed the petition, though not all are affiliated with the UI.

Hadley Galbraith, president of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students, said graduate instructors are feeling uncertain about the lack of guidance for the semester.

“I think my fellow instructors, graduate instructors at least, feel pretty limited in the amount of agency they have to create a safe learning environment for themselves and their students, as well as to be in a safe environment for their courses,” she said.

While most courses at the UI are in person this semester, classes over 150 students are still held online.

Katherine Linder, a fifth-year graduate student said, she feels fortunate to be one of the only TAs in her department teaching classes online this year.

She said even teaching online, COVID-19 can be very disruptive to a student’s semester.

“I don’t have to worry about in-person stuff or masks in the classroom, but I am worried for us, with this class in particular, because of students who may miss time because of illness, [or] family members that get sick,” Linder said.

Though masks are not required at the university, Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague instituted a citywide mask mandate on Aug. 19.

The UI will continue to follow guidance from the regents and state law, which does not require masks.

Linder said the lack of a mask requirement is concerning to her as an instructor.

“We’re seeing this uptick of cases within the university area, and we’re seeing that the town itself is saying that we need to mandate masks, and the university really isn’t replying to that,” she said.