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Montana’s University System is getting pushback from some faculty members who feel that wearing face masks should be required, not just strongly recommended, to limit spread of the coronavirus when students return in the fall.

“Yes, we are very concerned,” said Marvin Lansverk, 62, an English professor at Montana State University for 32 years and former Faculty Senate chair.

“What do Costco and Harvard know that the Montana University System doesn’t?” Lansverk asked.

“One would hope MSU would follow the best scientific advice,” he said. “What’s Montana afraid of? Are they worried about students not coming?”

Brock Tessman, the University System’s deputy commissioner for academics, research and student affairs, defended Tuesday the Healthy Fall 2020 task force, saying it continues to evaluate its plans to limit virus spread and keep campuses safe.

“We think the best way to do that is to build a really strong culture around masks and health and safety,” Tessman said. That includes getting student and campus leaders, he said, “to lead by example.”

Matt Kelley, Gallatin City-County Health officer, said the county’s emergency rule recommends individuals wear masks where social distancing — staying 6 feet apart — isn’t possible. The county also asks businesses to consider requiring masks in places where people have to go, like grocery stores, but distancing is difficult, and doing it “in a friendly way.”

Kelley also sees downsides in trying to require everyone to wear masks.

“Just having a rule doesn’t mean you have universal compliance, or a way to enforce the rule once it’s passed,” Kelley said.

“How do you get more people to wear masks? Force them? Or do you try to help them understand?” he asked, so that people will want to wear masks.

Kelley said he regrets that wearing masks has become such a polarizing political issue. The debate is drowning out what he called the “No. 1 piece of advice — keep your distance, and stay at home.”

MSU plans to hand out thousands of free Bobcat masks to students when they return to classes Aug. 17, as one part of its plan to reopen the Bozeman campus.

Tom Woods, an MSU adjunct physics instructor and a state House representative, raised concerns at a recent legislative hearing, and said that afterwards people called him to say they appreciated it. Faculty members are afraid to speak out, he said.

“Absolutely, we should require masks,” Woods said, “That’s what the science says. …We’re an institution that’s supposed to be founded on scientific principles.

“Does it make sense to bring thousands of students from other states, pack them into dorms, into dining halls. No, it doesn’t make sense.”

Woods said he’s concerned about more than masks.

“I don’t think we’re ready to open,” he said. “We haven’t stockpiled tests. … We should have the capability to test and test and test students. I don’t believe we’ve done anything to beef up our clinic.”

Woods said he fears the university’s plan “is going to place the community at risk.”

“I think we’re hoping for the best, but hope is not a strategy,” he said.

Eric Austin, political science professor and outgoing MSU Faculty Senate chair, said he has heard concerns from faculty members. Austin agreed that new studies are suggesting that “face mask use is one of the most effective strategies for reducing the risk of transmission,” especially when people don’t yet show symptoms. A pretty large portion of the faculty is at risk, from age or health issues, he added.

University officials are continuing to listen and learn more and the fall plans continue to evolve, Austin said.

Michael Brody, associate professor of education and incoming MSU Faculty Senate chair, said faculty members “hope that everyone in the MSU community will wear masks especially in buildings and classrooms on campus (and) throughout the entire Gallatin/Bozeman community. Faculty want everyone to be safe because they know that in order to control infections, each individual, whether they are on campus or off, must do their part in preventing the spread of the disease.”

Joy Honea, a sociology professor and faculty union president at MSU-Billings, said a letter is circulating around Montana that would ask the commissioner of higher education and governor to require masks on state campuses.

Honea said a survey of 114 Billings faculty union members got a high response rate, which shows a lot of people care about the issue, and 64% favored requiring masks where social distancing can’t be maintained.

“I think every day there’s increasing evidence of the effectiveness of cloth face masks in slowing the virus,” Honea said. “All of us want to be open (in the fall). It seems a requirement would be a good step to achieve that…. All around Montana, we see cases going up, and seeing very low (mask) usage except where it’s required.

“No one wants to be the mask police,” she added. “If we simply say, ‘We think you should,’ I don’t think you’re going to get enough compliance to make us safer.”

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