Colleges couldn’t require off-campus masks, distancing under proposed House bill

By: - February 2, 2021 1:44 pm

The Old Capitol is a landmark at the University of Iowa and part of the official university logo. (Photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)

Isolation dorms. Grab-and-go dining halls. “Social moratoriums.”

College campuses are a whole new world in 2021 as schools work to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Beyond just wearing masks in class, some universities have introduced policies to prohibit students from attending unmasked gatherings, traveling or hosting visitors. 

At Drake University in Des Moines, for instance, the school may discipline students who throw a party or attend one off campus. Under a bill advancing through Iowa’s House of Representatives, Drake would be unable to enforce such a policy at risk of losing Iowa tuition grants.

House Study Bill 162 would eliminate policies at public, private and community colleges that require mask wearing or social distancing outside of school grounds. 

“People feel like they’re getting picked on, being singled out for not wearing masks,” Rep. Joe Mitchell, R-Mount Pleasant, said in a subcommittee meeting Tuesday.

The Legislature would compel public institutions and community colleges to suspend off-campus rules on COVID-19, if the bill passes. Private universities like Drake may choose to continue such policies, but students would lose access to Iowa tuition grants if they did so.

“I’m having college administrators tell me that somebody not wearing a face covering off campus is just as bad as a group of students drinking underage off campus,” Mitchell said. “We don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, a law professor at the University of Iowa, opposed the bill. She said she taught in person through the fall semester. The students were masked and socially distanced in class, but faced significant community spread in college towns, which had some of the highest positivity rates in the U.S. when schools reopened in August.

“To say that there’s nothing the university can do to have people take these precautions, it’s crazy,” she said. “It’s just crazy.”

The Iowa Board of Regents is registered as undecided on the bill, but state relations officer Mary Braun brought up some concerns: Would schools be able to require safe behavior for school-related travel, like internships or away games?

“Universities have been able to prevent an outbreak (with) various protocols, including the mask-wearing and the social distancing,” Braun said.

Lawmakers voted to advance the proposal to the State Government committee. Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, and Mitchell voted in favor. Bohannan voted against.

“For all of the talk about how important in-person learning is … to take away the one thing that the universities and colleges can do to keep us in person is reckless, it’s irresponsible, it’s really unfair,” Bohannan said.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.