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Employee, student groups call for masks at UA indoor sites

by Jaime Adame | June 27, 2020 at 7:45 a.m.
University of Arkansas students walk past Old Main on the U of A campus in Fayetteville in this 2014 photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Faculty, student and staff leaders are calling for the wearing of face coverings indoors in all University of Arkansas, Fayetteville buildings and classrooms to help manage the coronavirus pandemic.

A UA spokesman said Chancellor Joe Steinmetz is supportive of the joint resolution -- from leaders of staff, faculty and student governance groups -- sent Friday to top campus administrators.

The resolution makes explicit a call for an indoor masking requirement, unlike the university's published plan for reopening the campus. UA's Return to Campus plan, published June 1, states a general requirement for campus masking in public where physical distancing is difficult.

In the two-page resolution, the campus leaders "insist that the University of Arkansas administration prioritize the health and safety of the entire campus community and require proper face coverings for ALL persons on campus in ALL indoor settings, including classrooms and labs, beginning forthwith."

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Leaders for the UA faculty senate, campus faculty, the Associated Student Government, the Graduate-Professional Student Congress and the UA staff senate all signed the resolution, dated Thursday.

"Chancellor Steinmetz is supportive of the resolution to maximize safety given how widespread the virus still is and he has communicated the resolution and his support to the system office," UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email.

The state and Northwest Arkansas in recent days have seen daily counts of new coronavirus cases rise to highs not seen earlier in the pandemic.

UA suspended in-person classes March 12 because of the covid-19 outbreak, and online-only classes are continuing through the summer academic term. The UA Return to Campus plan outlines a phased-in approach for reopening the campus, with the student body returning in August for the fall semester.

The University of Arkansas System board of trustees considered a face covering resolution on June 17 for campuses in the UA System, but no vote took place as trustees raised questions about how such a resolution might apply to visitors and campus athletic teams.

[DOCUMENT: Resolution on face protection at UA »]

The draft UA System resolution, which trustees said will be changed and reconsidered at a future meeting, stated that campuses would adopt policies requiring masks in university facilities where physical distancing is not possible.

Fayetteville City Council members on June 16 unanimously approved an ordinance requiring face coverings in most indoor public places. On Thursday, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. signed a similar executive order.

Nate Hinkel, a spokesman for the UA System, said in an email that while campuses in the UA System -- which includes UA-Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock -- "appreciate and follow many city ordinances, the Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas is ultimately responsible for governance and policy of all UA System institutions."

Hinkel said the trustees board "will be presented a resolution at an upcoming meeting that takes into consideration guidelines, best practices and safety measures specific to keeping students, faculty, staff and visitors to our campuses as safe as possible."

The UA Return to Campus plan lists physical distancing measures, face coverings and frequent hand-washing as key behaviors to lower the risk of transmission of the virus in public settings and where social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its website advises the use of face coverings "to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others."

Fran Hagstrom, the 2019-20 chairperson of the UA faculty senate, said the group's executive committee has been meeting this summer but not the full senate body.

The resolution was jointly written by the leaders for the campus groups, and forwarded to the chancellor and provost, said Hagstrom, an associate professor of communication sciences and disorders.

"The resolution was given a good deal of thought and through the process does reflect the sentiments of the various groups," Hagstrom said in an email.

The UA staff senate had members vote Thursday on the nonbinding resolution, said Trish Watkins, chairperson of the staff senate group.

"Twenty-two voted, and we had two abstentions. No one voted against it," said Watkins, who is director of grants, finance and human resources for World Trade Center Arkansas.

The joint resolution passed by the UA campus leaders cited plans by other large public universities, including Texas A&M University.

On June 9, Texas A&M University President Michael Young wrote in a letter to the campus that face coverings must be worn in indoor public areas of campus "except where marked, even if you are alone." The letter explicitly states that the requirement generally extends to classrooms and research laboratories.

Among other Arkansas universities, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro convened a teaching task force that had the faculty recommend students wear "appropriate face coverings for the duration of a class period unless otherwise instructed by the professor," according to a report published on ASU's website.

ASU spokesman Bill Smith said Friday that the recommendation has been adopted as part of the university's Return to Learn plan.

"Our plan is flexible and can be revised should public health guidelines change," Smith said in an email.


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