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In its current state, Montana State University’s plan for reopening for the fall semester could best be described as “evolving.” And that’s understandable. There are a lot of moving parts in the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s impossible to predict exactly what may be happening come August.

But one aspect of the plan could use some certainty: requiring face masks in classrooms and other enclosed spaces. As of now, plans are to make masks in classrooms “strongly recommended” but not mandatory. University officials may want to rethink that. Given the option, it’s certain many students will choose not to wear a mask. And if they have the option to forego masks on campus, they’re unlikely to wear them in spaces where they should off campus.

That’s a troubling thought. Evidence is compelling and growing that masks inhibit the spread of the virus. They are primarily effective at preventing infected individuals from spreading it to others though they may offer some protection to the wearer as well. And many of those infected don’t know that they are.

We are only a few weeks into the lifting of the statewide lockdown, but COVID-19 cases are already resurging. And Gallatin County is proving to be the epicenter of infections within the state with many new cases reported here recently. If thousands of students return to campus in August from all over the country and the world, it stands to reason we can expect an even greater upturn.

Many students, particular those with diabetes, asthma or other underlying conditions must already be leery about heading back to campus. Knowing they will be sitting in classrooms and dorm common areas with students not wearing masks will only increase those fears. Faculty members – at least those in high-risk groups – must also be having second thoughts about the situation.

MSU officials are under pressure to conform with guidelines from the commissioner of higher education and governor’s offices, both of which are reluctant to mandate masks and fear a legal challenge. But this is an issue that may merit some pushback. Requiring masks for attending class may invite a lawsuit, but so be it. This would be worth getting a ruling on. This is a public safety issue, pure and simple. And any district judge will likely be reluctant to deny MSU’s authority to require masks to help protect students, faculty and staff.

Granted, wearing a cloth face mask is an inconvenience. But a mask requirement will only be temporary and a small price to pay for perhaps saving lives.

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Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

To send feedback on editorials, write to citydesk@dailychronicle.com.