Recommendations for a temporary mask mandate were rejected by university curators Tuesday morning.
Several board members questioned whether a mandate would be effective in limiting the transmission of COVID-19, as well as whether it would be more effective to continue a masking recommendation rather than requirement.
The curators also noted that neither Columbia, Boone County nor Columbia Public Schools currently have a masking requirement.
UM System President Mun Choi asked curators to enact a two-week masking requirement in classrooms, labs, offices and public buildings when attendance was required and social distancing was not possible. The board voted 3-6 against the recommendation.
Curator Greg Hoberock asked what the goal of the policy would be.
“What’s the driving issue here?” he asked. “Are we trying to protect the health of all Columbia and Boone County or keep our campus open?”
Choi told curators, “We’re trying to keep the university open, but in the process of keeping the university open, we do believe it will reduce the number of transmissions within the community.”
When the first recommendation failed, he asked for a policy to require masks only in classrooms and labs, with masks strongly encouraged in other indoor spaces, applied during the same two-week period. That recommendation also failed, by a vote of 2-7.
Both recommendations were to be in place from Jan. 18 to Feb. 3, the date of the next curators meeting.
The university will continue the current approach of recommending masks in indoor spaces.
In an email sent to UM system students and staff Tuesday after the meeting, Choi, along with UM system chancellors, urged vigilance as the more contagious, if milder, omicron variant continues to spread.
Among the recommendations are for students, faculty and staff to receive vaccinations and boosters, continue to wear masks, remain home if they are sick and find ways to maintain social distance in the workplace. The email also encourages gatherings, meetings and events to be held virtually when possible and to limit travel.
“We expect our community members to take our responsibility to each other seriously as we all contribute to mitigating the spread of the virus,” the email said.
Kathleen Trauth, an MU Faculty Council chairperson, said she appreciates that the issue was brought up, but is disappointed no mask mandate was implemented.
Trauth said she had asked her students to continue wearing masks after the previous mandate was lifted. She said faculty can have conversations with students about masks and work together, but there can be no enforcement if there are only recommendations.
“Given that we don’t have (a mask mandate), we need to think about what we need to do now,” Trauth said. “What can we do to to make sure that everyone is safe, and we can continue to keep teaching?”
The university reported 163 students with COVID-19 on Sunday, as well as 19 faculty and 66 MU staff members with active COVID-19 cases. The number of active student cases has been rising in the past two weeks to the highest numbers seen during the 2021-22 school year.
After curators rejected both options — which most other public universities in Missouri have adopted to deal with the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant — Choi said the university would “do the best we can in managing the business continuity of the university.”