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Masks have been a mandatory part of stepping inside most Missouri State buildings this year, but that is set to change next week.
Starting Tuesday when classes resume, masks will be an optional precaution against the coronavirus, university officials at MSU announced Friday morning.
Shortly after MSU’s announcement, Ozarks Technical Community College announced that the mask mandate on its campus would end starting Feb. 22, and Drury University announced its mandate would end Feb. 21.
MSU President Clif Smart said during Friday’s MSU Board of Governors meeting that he and leaders at the other campuses have worked with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department and City of Springfield to make the decision. OTC sent an announcement to faculty and staff late Friday morning making the announcement, and Drury’s announcement soon followed.
“We’ve been tracking the number of cases and hospitalizations and positivity rates,” Smart said. “Those are kind of our guide posts. They’ve all fallen dramatically. It appears that the Omicron surge is nearing an end, both in Springfield and in our country in general.”
Confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to Missouri State have been in sharp decline, Smart said. For the week ending on Jan. 23, 294 cases were reported as the Omicron variant of the virus surged. Then, 191 cases were reported the following week. As of Friday morning, there had been 20 cases reported to Missouri State over the past seven days. Current case numbers are low at Drury and OTC as well. According to the Drury University COVID-19 dashboard, there was only one active case as of Friday morning. OTC has been informed of 12 positive cases among students and staff at its Springfield campus since Feb. 14.
Smart said that he and MSU administrators have been working toward the decision for about two weeks, during which they’ve met with numerous faculty and staff committee leadership teams, as well as with the MSU Student Government Association.
“It probably won’t see unanimous support for this, because people have very different ideas and masking has become — to some extent, for some people — a political statement,” Smart said. “And some people are still significantly concerned, appropriately so, about the virus. But we think the bulk of our campus community is ready to do this.”
Smart said that getting the health department’s OK on their policy timeline “answers most of the people that say we were pressured into this politically — we weren’t.”
He said that throughout the pandemic, MSU has tried to make decisions based on data and what’s best for students. Noting that a third of MSU’s students are on Pell Grants and that many lack high-speed Internet access or computer equipment at home, Smart said that MSU’s goal throughout the pandemic has been to stay open and do it safely.
“And for most of that time, we believed that masking was a part of how we did that,” Smart said.
With the Omicron surge passed, and with 90 percent of MSU employees vaccinated, he said, “We think now is the time to roll (the indoor mask requirement) off.”
Missouri State University required faculty, staff, students and visitors to wear masks in academic buildings across the Springfield and Mountain Grove campuses and during all in-person labs that met indoors even if they were not held in buildings such as the Carrington Hall Auditorium or Plaster Stadium.
Briar Douglas, student member of the Board of Governors, said Friday that he asked several students their thoughts on the possibility of a mask mandate repeal in the weeks leading up to Friday’s announcement, “and I would be remiss if I didn’t say the response is going to be mixed, I think.” He said he was personally in support of the decision.
At Drury University, masks were required for all faculty, staff and students when they were indoors and not alone in a space. Masks will be optional across the main campus and Drury GO sites starting Feb. 21, according to a news release.
“This decision was not made lightly, but rather under the guidance and consultation of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department and in coordination with area higher educational institutions,” Drury President Dr. Tim Cloyd said in the release. “As we move forward through these unprecedented times, the health and safety of the Drury community remains our top priority.”
At OTC, masks were required inside of all college buildings. An email sent to OTC employees thanked faculty and staff for efforts to keep students and fellow employees safe. The college will go mask optional on Feb. 22, except for the Lewis Family Early Childhood Education Center. Anyone entering ECEC must still wear a mask.
“The college appreciates how cooperative our students and employees have been in complying with the masking requirement,” OTC chief media relations officer Mark Miller told the Daily Citizen. “OTC leadership understands that no one likes wearing a face covering, but the OTC community has been great about complying.”
Smart said that there are a few exceptions to the new policy at MSU. Health clinics will continue to require masking. Indoor masking will also continue to be required for employees at the university’s Child Development Center. The Bear Line campus bus system will continue to require riders to mask, as the transit line is governed by federal policies.
The Greenwood Laboratory School, which falls under a separate policy, will also go mask optional next week, Smart said.
Smart said that there is always a possibility that mandatory masking will resume if future surges or new variants require the decision to be made.
“We’re going to continue to make decisions based on what’s happening in Springfield and based on what the virus is doing and what’s happening on our campus,” he said.
About 20 minutes into explaining the decision at the Board of Governors meeting Friday, Smart’s voice began to crack.
“As president of the university … excuse me,” he said. “It’s been a hard two years, guys.”