Masks Campus

A pedestrian wears his mask on his elbow as he walks down South 11th Avenue on Monday, July 27, 2020, on MSU campus. 

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The Montana Board of Regents has unanimously agreed to require university students and employees to wear face masks in most indoor settings as one key part of reopening state campuses safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The regents voted 7-0 Tuesday in an online meeting to adopt the Health Fall 2020 plan. It gives state campuses 23 pages of guidelines on how to manage everything from teaching to housing, research to security.

The regents’ action directs Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian to carry out the guidelines, to modify them as the virus situation changes and to bring regular updates back to the board.

The 12-member task force that wrote guidelines decided to upgrade using face masks from a strong recommendation to a requirement after Christian noted a rise in coronavirus cases nationwide and in Montana, as well as new studies finding face masks are effective in helping to stop spread of the airborne virus.

Christian thanked everyone who is helping the Montana University System navigate “these incredibly challenging times.”

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner and chair of the task force, said the group is continuing to monitor the virus and willing to adjust the plan as things change.

Each campus is writing more specific plans, based on the guidelines and their own circumstances.

The mask requirement will emphasize communication and encouragement, but also include disciplinary actions when necessary, Tessman said, calling that one of the trickiest parts of the guidelines.

The task force is also looking into testing students and employees for the virus.

“We’re still finalizing plans there,” Tessman said, but the way things look now, “folks who want to get tested are going to be able to receive COVID-19 tests.”

Regent Paul Tuss noted that mental health was listed in the plan as something campuses should consider, but not listed as “essential.” Tuss urged that be changed, saying the regents have placed mental health “at the top of our priorities for large and small campuses.”

Regent Robert Nystuen asked what would happen if an employee tested positive for the virus. Would a building be closed? Would there be a deep cleaning? Would Montana State University President Waded Cruzado, for example, inform the faculty, students or the press?

Christian replied that communication decisions are ultimately in the hands of local county and state public health officials.

Regents’ Chair Casey Lozar said reopening campuses is really going to depend on everyone’s “collective responsibility.”

“That is unquestionably the heart of the matter,” Tessman said. If people want to return to campus for an in-person college experience, he said, it’s going to require everyone to take responsibility.

The campuses are planning marketing campaigns to get that message across, he said.

Student Regent Amy Sexton, an accounting student from MSU-Billings, said student leaders are concerned that when classes move from in-person to online, that shouldn’t trigger technology fees for students. Christian said his office is working on the fee issue.Regent Martha Sheehy stressed the importance of having the Board of Regents vote on virus policies, rather than simply have administrators handle decisions, to maintain the regents’ authority.

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