In promoting a safer return to campuses this fall, key decisions by two universities could have seismic implications across higher education and impact political decision-making in their states and nationwide.
Officials at Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas have announced they are mandating masks to start the 2021-22 academic year, joining hundreds of other higher education institutions but going against the grain in Republican-led states where COVID-19 cases are rising and the delta variant is raging.
Arizona State’s decision directly conflicts with Gov. Doug Ducey’s signing of legislation that has banned colleges and schools from requiring testing, masks or vaccinations. That stance has led to extreme backlash, from education leaders to physicians, 150 of whom penned a letter to him last week asking him to do the opposite: require masks in schools.
ASU’s mandate does not call for masks in all areas on campus—it “strongly recommends them” inside buildings—but does include classrooms and teaching and research labs. It may include outdoor spaces depending on foot traffic or potential for crowd gatherings, in meeting with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“With the start of the fall semester a few weeks away, we must remain vigilant and take modest steps to protect all community members so that we can continue to fulfill our mission,” Nancy Gonzales, executive vice president and university provost and Morgan Olsen, executive vice president, treasurer and CFO, wrote to the ASU community. “Doing so recognizes our fundamental and shared responsibility for the health and safety of our campus environments and the tens of thousands of people who study, work and visit here.”
Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees for the University of Arkansas system—seizing on a judge’s ruling that temporarily halts the state’s ban on mask mandates—passed a resolution that will allow the institution to implement a policy for face coverings for its community, whether individuals are vaccinated or not. The University of Central Arkansas was one of the first in the state to employ a mask mandate and was preceded by several K-12 school districts.
More from UB: State-by-state mask tracker
Arkansas has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 cases: on June 10, the state averaged 190 cases per day; now it is more than 2,600. Its full vaccination rate of 37.7% is one of the lowest in the nation, ahead of only Alabama, Louisiana, Wyoming and Mississippi. Arizona has 46% of its population fully vaccinated, which Ducey calls “great news.” Like Arkansas, its seven-day case rate in June was under 400. Now, it’s at 2,495.
The two states and six others – Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah – have mask bans in place that prohibit schools and publicly funded higher education institutions from installing them, as well. The University of South Carolina tried to impose a mask requirement but was shut down by the state’s attorney general. In Florida, none of the major universities—Florida State, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, Florida Atlantic or Florida International—has mask requirements in place, despite an overwhelming seven-day average of 20,000-plus cases statewide, a huge increase in hospitalizations and more children being admitted. However, several private institutions, including Jacksonville University, have decided to impose them.
“Weighing the local conditions, guidance from the CDC and experienced state and local health officials, and our commitment to the health and safety of our campus community, Jacksonville will require all individuals, vaccinated and unvaccinated, to wear face masks while indoors on campus or at any learning site or facility operated by JU,” a statement to the community said. “This policy is effective immediately and will remain in place through the first 30 days of the fall semester.”
Though colleges and universities in conservative states have struggled to gain footing on vaccine mandates, mask requirements have gained leverage in places such as Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Tennessee. Low vaccine rates coupled with the delta variant have forced some states to heed to public health guidance, warnings and state and local mandates. Louisiana, which is experiencing the highest rate of COVID cases in the U.S., has ordered masks in all indoor public spaces.
What will happen next in Arizona is anyone’s guess. Ducey’s order goes into effect on Sept. 29.
“Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn’t vaccinated,” Ducey said on July 27 after the CDC’s updated guidance recommending masks indoors. “We’ve passed all of this into law, and it will not change. The CDC today is recommending that we wear masks in school and indoors, regardless of our vaccination status. This is just another example of the Biden-Harris administration’s inability to effectively confront the COVID-19 pandemic.”