Iowa may soon bar public colleges and universities from requiring students and staff to wear face masks or observe social distancing against COVID-19 when they are off-campus, after House File 162 was approved by a House subcommittee by a 2-1 vote. It will now be presented to the full House State Government Committee.
The bill proposes that “public postsecondary institutions are prohibited from requiring students or employees to wear face masks or social distance off-campus.”
It also stipulates that “only accredited private institutions that do not require students or employees to wear face masks or social distance off-campus can qualify for the Iowa tuition grant program.”
Only Rep. Christina Bohannon (D-Iowa City) voted against the bill at the three-member subcommittee meeting, citing concerns about community infection and explaining that lifting the precautions could cause universities to shut down.
Bohannon also teaches at the University of Iowa, and added that the measure would conflict with Governor Kim Reynolds’ own recommendations for mask-wearing and social distancing.
Rep Joe Mitchell (R-Mount Pleasant) told Des Moines Register that some universities have “overstepped their authority” in penalizing students that were caught violating these guidelines off-campus. He revealed that these penalties have gone as far as threats of expulsion if the students are not wearing a face covering off-campus, claiming that he has emails demonstrating these threats.
“This comes from a point of view that there’s certain parameters that a university doesn’t have for students off-campus,” he explained.
Taking an opposing stance on the issue, lobbyists representing Iowa colleges and universities have argued that the bill could worsen COVID-19 transmission.
The lobbyists also argue that the bill may cause serious issues if it becomes law, particularly if the pandemic continues.
Lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Frank Chiodo, argued that if this bill is enacted and the pandemic continues “this would basically force us to go all virtual because of the exposure and the risk.”
Lobbyist for the Iowa Board of Regents Mary Braun, whose group remains undecided on the bill, shared their concern that the legislation could have an impact on students and employees who are traveling for business, attending internships, or conducting student-teaching sessions.
Braun pointed out that there are several university-sponsored or affiliated events that happen off-campus, and that “we would have a reasonable expectation that our students and staff comply with the policies.”
“It just needs to be clear in the bill that the university can continue to require all employees to continue to follow the university’s protocols and face coverings and social distancing when traveling for university business.”