UM System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi defended the University of Missouri’s COVID-19 approach before a panel of state lawmakers Tuesday afternoon.
The Special Committee on Disease Control and Prevention, formed in March by House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, has previously called upon state health leaders, including Gov. Mike Parson’s health chief. The hearing — with Rep. Jon Patterson, a doctor from Lee’s Summit, chairing the panel — was the third the committee has held.
In his opening remarks, Choi firmly backed the university’s opposition to mass testing and its requirement for mandatory mask wearing.
Timing of tests are key to the plan, he argued, adding that “testing those without symptoms is not supported by the (American Medical Association) or medical experts in Columbia, Boone County and in counties in major regions throughout the state.”
“All the students who need a test, get a test,” he said.
He also said that he believes mass testing is “not worthwhile” in many communities and major universities that have required it.
“Universities after universities are finding that the behavior of the students have not changed with their mass testing policy,” he said. “The best strategy is to assume that everyone has COVID-19 so they wear masks. They also have social distancing and practice good hygiene.”
Choi stressed continuous education on managing COVID-19 is the key to mitigating its spread.
“This pandemic may be here with us for several years,” he said. “Ours is a long-term strategy, and it’s backed by the advice and counsel of medical and public health experts.”
He expressed relief at the news that Boone County had revised its Aug. 21-27 positivity rate to 8.9% — exponentially down from the 44.7% rate reported at the time. Boone County health officials said Tuesday that the discrepancies in the figures resulted from a glitch in reporting some initial lab tests.
Choi has drawn some criticism for the university’s public health and safety measures this fall, as well as for blocking MU students on his personal Twitter account, several of whom had been publicly critical of the university’s public health and safety measures. He later unblocked the students.
Choi received little pushback from the committee. Rep. Jonathan Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, asked whether hybrid courses offered at MU warrant lowered tuition.
“Whether it is a face-to-face course or online course, we have (the) same faculty members delivering it and the same teaching assistants working with students,” Choi responded. “In many ways, our faculty members and graduate assistants are working harder than ever.”
In an interview following his testimony, Choi said it is important to report to lawmakers and that he is not concerned about state funding being dependent on the success of this semester.
“They appreciate the safety protocols that we have in place to be able to continue,” he said. “And we’re never going to have a situation where there is zero risk.”
“But how do we minimize it? Minimize it by doing this,” he said, pointing to his mask. “ Making it a requirement for everybody on campus. No student will be turned away from testing, even if they don’t have the insurance.”
Choi pushed back against suggestions that the university is being kept open for on-campus teaching to secure revenue.
“I recognize that I have many constituents, and I have to consider many factors before making a decision,” he said. “There are always risks inherent in everything that we do as leaders, but as leaders, it is our job to minimize and manage those risks,” he said. “What will pivoting to remote learning accomplish? There is no evidence that there is in-person transmission in classrooms when everyone is wearing a mask and socially distant,” he said.
Educational disparities like broadband access, access to technology, food services and housing are the “unintended consequences of going remote,” Choi added.
“I find that heartbreaking to be able to say to staff members that this is a time for layoffs and that health insurance will not be provided,” he said. “And to say that during a pandemic, and to me, that is heartbreaking.”