UI faculty, students request increased COVID-19 mitigation strategies

Hawkeyes across campus are asking university leaders to take more precautions as classes begin for the spring 2022 semester.


Grace Smith

Graduate student Junhee Park types on a computer during the first day of spring semester classes in the Main Library on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2022. With classes starting up again, some University of Iowa members have concerns with the COVID-19 omicron variant and how the university is handling it. Park spoke about masks on campus and in classrooms. “We need to have a policy wearing masks,” Park said. “At least in the class or library- like a public area.”

Eleanor Hildebrandt and Sabine Martin

Some members of the University of Iowa community have raised concerns about the COVID-19 omicron variant and what the university is doing to prevent illness for students, staff, and faculty as the spring semester begins.

Several Iowa City groups, including UI professors, alumni, and the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students union, have petitioned for greater COVID-19 mitigation from the state Board of Regents and institutional heads in the last week.

UI Undergraduate Student Government President and senior Regan Smock said she is working with other campus leaders to better the experience for students who test positive.

“I’ve been advocating more for students to have better options as far as if I test positive, I’m not just waiting two weeks, not going to class,” Smock said. “Right now, students can work with their professors, but I think that there will be a lot more positive tests than last semester.”

She said personally she’s taken more COVID-19 tests over winter break than all of fall semester, just to be cautious.

“A lot of the work this time around is going to come from the communication side of advocating for people to wear masks, asking them to get vaccinated and get the booster,” she said.

In a campus email on Tuesday, President Barbara Wilson encouraged students to wear masks, especially in the classroom.

“Each of us wants to retain our on-campus experiences, and wearing masks as we regather is crucial,” Wilson wrote. “I have come to know our university as highly cooperative and collaborative, and your continued help in managing the virus is needed.”

Almost 300 community members, including some UI employees, signed a letter to the state Board of Regents and institutional heads last week asking for changes to the regents’ COVID-19 policies to be put in place no later than Jan. 17.

The letter proposes several changes to the UI’s COVID-19 measures:

  • Universal mask mandate for all Regents university campuses by the start of the spring semester
  • More university-provided portable air filters using HEPA air filters in child care classrooms and common areas,
  • O2 monitor in each classroom and common areas,
  • Mask requirement for ages 2+ in all spaces used by child care classes/groups (such as classrooms, lobbies, and gyms)
  • Classroom-level notifications of positive cases
  • Ability to have university child care students regularly tested through existing campus student health service
  • Paid leave options for employees who are caregivers impacted by the COVID-19 case of a dependent and/or wishing to temporarily remove children or other vulnerable dependents from daycare/school settings, regardless of the open status of those settings

Loren Glass, English department executive officer and president of the UI chapter of the American Association of University Professors, signed the letter. He said overall, he is unhappy with the university’s lack of response.

“I’m deeply disappointed in the university’s lack of policy. I mean, we are at the bottom of the Big Ten in terms of taking any actions to mitigate COVID,” he said. “I’m devoted to this university, I love this community, and I’m doing everything I can to keep everyone happy and healthy and safe. I’m disappointed in the Board of Regents, in the Legislature, and how they’ve handled this pandemic.”

RELATED: Some Big Ten universities move online, UI remains in person

Glass said he is sympathetic to individuals who want to start classes in-person, but he knows it would be safer in classrooms if there were some mandates for masks or vaccines from the university.

The letter said the regent institutions’ COVID-19 protocols on the campuses that were put into place before the omicron variant are necessary.

“Note that most of these requests are inexpensive, and the remaining would be eligible for use of federal COVID relief funds,” the letter said. “Anything less than these steps would be incredibly irresponsible, unethical, and unkind as far as our campuses’ young children are concerned.”

UI Faculty Senate President Teresa Marshall said personally, she worries about the impact of COVID-19 at the UI.

“I think faculty, certainly not all faculty, but many, are tired of COVID… there’s certainly fatigue,” she said. “There’s some resignation that they’re stuck in this space, and the long-term consequences, as far as retention and commitment, is a significant concern.”

COGS proposed a UI “e-pivot” pledge last week, asking instructors to move their courses online for at least the first two weeks of the semester.

Glass, who is teaching a small seminar this semester, is keeping his classes in-person as he starts the semester. He said he has received questions about the guidelines of classes from professors in his department.

“I have received numerous queries from faculty and graduate students about the policy, about whether they can start out online,” he said. “As DEO, I have to communicate the policy.”

According to policy for instructors provided by the provost’s office, instructors need prior permission before moving classes online. Instructors may be allowed to change class formats if a significant number of students are absent or if the instructor needs to isolate or quarantine.

Kaitlyn Richards, UI first-year public health student, said she has had a couple professors this semester who had COVID-19 before classes started, so some of her classes were moved online.

“I do kind of have a fear just because the omicron variant is kind of spreading rapidly, I guess, like faster than the other variants,” Richards said.

Jordyn Bryant, UI first-year studying nursing, said none of her classes have been moved online because of COVID-19.

“I think it’s okay, I mean, there’s not much they can really be doing right now,” she said. “I mean, as long as people are taking care of themselves and being as precautious as possible.”

Marshall said she likes that the UI is providing KN95 masks for students this semester as well as take-home test kits. She said if all UI students were vaccinated and wore masks, it would prevent unnecessary illness.

“Are we doing enough? No, we never do enough, because that’s the nature of life in general,” she said. “We’re stuck because of the guidance from the Board of Regents, consistent with the Legislature. The university administration has chosen not to rebel or oppose the Board of Regents and the Legislature, which they kind of can’t.”

Smock said she is also excited about the university providing KN95 masks and more testing options to students this semester. She said those could be a game-changer, but she is waiting to see how things fall as students return.

“There is exciting stuff this semester,” she said. “Students can now pick PCR tests, quick self-tests at the IMU Welcome Center and residence halls. That’s a big deal, it’s something we didn’t have last semester.”

Smock has no online classes this semester. She said she’s been lucky to be an older student and benefit from smaller class sizes during the pandemic. She has, however, heard from students who want to remain in-person and others want to move online.

“I’ve heard from students that want to be online,” she said. “It’s less the circle I run in, but something I try to remember is there’s probably an equal amount of people who want to stay in person. It’s a tricky situation.”

Glass said he is most concerned for health care workers during the newest phase of the pandemic. He said he’s encouraging students and faculty in his department to think about them as the semester begins.

“Most students are healthy and young, and they’ll get omicron and it’ll sweep through them, and they’ll probably be fine,” he said. “But health care workers are completely overworked and under strain right now. I feel like we need to think about the common good, which includes first responders and health care professionals.”

Emily Delgado contributed to this report.