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House may ban off-campus masking requirements for college students

DES MOINES — A bill designed to forbid all Iowa colleges and universities from enforcing mask mandates among students and staff while they are off campus has cleared its first hurdle in the Iowa House.

Representative Joe Mitchell of Wayland said the bill has support among House Republicans. “I’m having college administrators tell me that, you know, somebody not wearing a face covering off campus is just as bad as a group of students drinking under age off campus or drug use,” Mitchell said. “…We don’t think that’s true. We don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Frank Chiodo, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said if the pandemic continues, this kind of a law would force private colleges to hold classes online.

“We’ve done our best to manage the unmanageable,” Chiodo said during a House subcommittee hearing. “…Quite frankly, the easiest and simplest thing that we can do is encourage our students, our faculty to be safe and wear a mask. It’s a lot more economical than having to shut down a university.”

Representative Christina Bohannon, a Democrat from Iowa City who is a University of Iowa law professor, said the bill “is crazy” because the greatest risk for catching Covid is in the community, not on campus.

“To take away the one thing that the universities and colleges can do to keep us in person,” she said during the subcommittee hearing, “…it’s wreckless, it’s irresponsible, it’s really unfair.”

Mitchell said being expelled or suspended for not wearing a mask off campus is a violation of a student’s rights.

“We know, scientifically, that the students could be more affected by the flu than Covid, but we know for older people, obviously, Covid is a much more dangerous thing, so it’s about the faculty,” Mitchell said. “…In my district, we have people that have to go to work when they work at the grocery store, the manufacturing plant or the hospital in my district, and so then we’re saying that we’re going to put educators on this pedestal over every other worker.”

The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa are asking for one change in the bill. The universities want to retain authority to require social distancing and mask wearing during university-sponsored activities and travel off-campus — especially for Hawkeye, Cyclone and Panther athletic teams that are trying to avoid Covid outbreaks, follow conference guidelines and keep competing.

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