MSU campus / Romney Hall

A student leads a tour past Montana Hall on June 25 at MSU.

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A Montana University System task force has changed course on face masks, recommending that students and employees be required to wear face coverings this fall, rather than being urged to do so, to limit spread of the coronavirus.

The MUS Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force reached consensus on the recommendation Wednesday during an online meeting led by Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner of higher education.

The 12-member task force hasn’t yet worked out details, such as whether to require masks only in classrooms or everywhere on campuses, including outdoors; what exceptions would be allowed; and what enforcement measures, if any, should be taken if people refuse to comply.

Tessman called the decision “a pivot” and said he would forward the recommendation to his boss and the Montana Board of Regents.

The task force originally issued a plan in June that said face masks would be strongly recommended, not required.

That prompted complaints, particularly from faculty members at the University of Montana and Montana State University.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian last week called on the task force to reconsider. Christian cited the growing number of COVID-19 cases nationally and in Montana, the demographic trend of more young people becoming infected, and new evidence of the effectiveness of face masks.

“Our faculty has spoken out — they want students to wear masks,” said MSU Provost Bob Mokwa.

Many people think making masks mandatory will result in more compliance, but not everyone agrees, Mokwa said. He stressed the importance of educating students on the importance of masks to help the larger community.

Stephanie Gray, dean of Gallatin College, said her faculty members expressed “a sense of relief” that the policy would be reconsidered.

“Whatever increases our chances of face-to-face instruction is what we want to promote,” said Dean Sandy Bauman of Helena College.

The task force plans to look into other public universities’ policies on face masks. Montana Tech Chancellor Les Cook said the University of Oklahoma’s is very restrictive, while the University of Washington mandates masks but gives people options to comply.

“Once we’re really restrictive, a lot of people are going to push back,” Cook said, while a policy with more options would be better received.

Cook predicted most students would comply because they want to be in college, not at home.

Melinda Arnold of MSU-Billings said her faculty has been vocal about requiring masks. But she cautioned that tough discipline, throwing students out of school or making people feel their rights are violated, wouldn’t be the best way to go.

In Havre, MSU-Northern Dean Dave Krueger said his campus risks losing some students if masks are required.

“We may take a hit from students,” Krueger said. “We’re willing to accept that. We just need to do what’s best.”

At Great Falls College MSU, Leanne Frost, general studies director, said the faculty is 100% on board with requiring masks. A couple staff employees said they would refuse, she said, but resistance is isolated.

Nicole Hazelbaker, UM-Western dean of students, said there were struggles when Montana campuses banned tobacco, but that ended up being successful.

Tessman said the mask recommendation would emphasize education and options, rather than discipline. “It fits Montana and ultimately would be more effective,” he said.

Some asked that faculty members be allowed to wear see-through face shields instead of masks when teaching, so people with hearing problems could read their lips.

Carol Bellin, 67, a non-traditional UM student in American government, said she felt “greatly relieved” by the mask recommendation. She asked that it be promoted in a positive way, through things like skits, but also be strongly enforced.

“I think if a students refused, campus police should be called,” Bellin said. “Thank you for your efforts at keeping the community safe.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.