At UMKC, a rare Missouri college without a mask mandate, students are ‘on edge’ about COVID outbreaks
Students and faculty headed back to class last week at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, one of few public colleges in the state without a mask mandate.
As COVID-19 numbers hit record highs across the state, students at the University of Missouri returned to in-person classes last week without a mask requirement in place.
Corby Schmitz, a freshman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, says that's left him anxiously checking if he’s been exposed to the virus in one of his classes.
“It just kind of keeps me on edge, waiting. Just like, every day, the first thing I do when I get up is check my email. That's what I'm doing now. I'm looking to see if the university sent anything out about it,” Schmitz says.
Schmitz says he was alarmed when he learned that the UM System Board of Curators earlier this month voted down two proposals by President Mun Choi for face mask requirements.
Choi noted at the board’s meeting that all other public four-year universities in the state had some form of mask requirements in place heading into the semester.
Masks are now only strongly recommended at UMKC, but Schmitz says he was surprised to find that most students were masked up when they returned to class.
“It was almost kind of like we're all kind of throwing it in the university's face, like, we're gonna make a smart decision, whether you are or not,” Schmitz says.
But he adds that there are still students who aren’t wearing masks on campus.
One such student is Ellie Pittman, a sophomore studying accounting. She said she was “happy” when she learned masks wouldn’t be required this semester.
“If anyone wants to, you know, they can still wear it. But I feel like it's just kind of personal preference now, instead of being forced to wear one,” Pittman says.
Meanwhile, other students say the move to drop masking requirements came too soon as the highly contagious omicron variant drives up COVID cases across the state and country.
“I know they said that we're supposed to come to the peak in the next few weeks here, so it would be nice if we could hold out for a little bit longer before we start trying to jump back into normal ways,” says freshman Airrisa Wilson.
The surge of COVID cases also has some professors wary about the lack of a mask requirement when students return to class.
Dr. Paul Barron, a chemistry professor, says he’s been asking his students to mask up. He says one reason is that there’s no room to socially distance in the crowded labs that he teaches in, where students are already taking precautions like wearing safety goggles.
Another reason is that he’s a single father and worries about his ability to take care of his son if Barron contracts COVID.
“I've got so many things going on, even if I'm sick for a week, that can have a huge impact on my family, my ability to take care of my son,” Barron says.
While Barron says professors are able to accommodate students if they test positive for COVID, he still worries about the impact being out sick will have on his students.
“How do you maintain integrity and give each student that same kind of experience and quality of education with all these different kinds of factors?” Barron asks. “Because they might be out for two weeks, and how do you catch up on a class that's moving as fast as mine if you're out for two weeks?”
Viviana Grieco, a history professor and chair of UMKC’s faculty senate, says she’s also encouraging her fellow educators to have conversations with their students about masking.
Without a city or system-wide mask mandate, she says the university is doing the best it can do to keep students and faculty safe.
“I think that we're taking care of ourselves the best way we can," Grieco says, "which is to take the virus very seriously, to encourage positive conversations about what we need to do, right?”
Ahead of the semester, she says the faculty senate had multiple conversations about safety precautions.
She says faculty are encouraged to take COVID-related absences into consideration for students and there is a process for students to request special accommodations because of the pandemic.
Faculty who feel uncomfortable teaching in person can request a change in class modality, according to Grieco. The process requires the approval of the department chair and the dean, and a certification of the class.
Shannon Jackson, a professor and chair of the anthropology department, says that process can be a barrier for educators wanting to make the switch to online learning.
“If you want to change the modality of your course, you now have to jump through fiery hoops to get that done because now all online courses have to go through certification,” Jackson says.
Grieco, who is on the certification team, says these procedures are in place to make the transition to online classes less “rocky” than it was earlier in the pandemic. She says the certification process is a standard that was in place before the pandemic.
UMKC didn’t provide details on the process for switching the modality of a class. But it said it encouraged faculty to have a plan in place to teach courses in all formats and has the resources to help them do so.
Jackson, however, says that with a tricky transition to online classes, no mandates in place and a looming legal threat from Missouri’s attorney general to sue public institutions that impose mask mandates, she feels like professors are “on their own.”
She says that feeling extends to teachers across the state, about half of whom have considered leaving the field, according to a survey by the Missouri State Teachers Association.
“You start to feel devalued on lots of levels," Jackson says. "(There’s) lots of ways you can devalue us. You can tell us that our health and well being is not a priority, that needless suffering is not something that anyone else is going to address. It's not something you can do on your own."
Some faculty believe UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal can implement a separate mask mandate for the university.
But a university spokesperson said in an email that UMKC does not have the authority to impose mask or vaccine requirements if they aren’t mandated by the city, state or board of curators.
Still, it's possible the board of curators will reconsider its decision.
After this month’s vote, curators asked Choi to update the board if hospitalizations significantly increase or if hospitals are unable to meet staffing requirements.
In the meantime, UMKC is working to accommodate students who have a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID as well as students who just have concerns. It’s also holding several free on-campus vaccination clinics starting in February and is working on a drive-through COVID testing site.
But for now, Jackson says she’s just trying to gear up for her first in-person class. And while others may not be wearing a mask, she will.
“I don't know what I'm facing on Monday," she says. "I really don't. So I will be wearing this face shield, I will be keeping my distance.”
KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.