Expressing growing urgency to act as COVID-19 cases in Utah mount and “strong recommendations” to wear face coverings on campuses appear ineffective, members of the Utah Board of Higher Education voiced support for mask and vaccine requirements at public colleges and universities on Thursday.

“This is urgent,” said board member Sanchaita Datta, during a board teleconference, calling it “a matter of life and death.”

As a system of higher education, “we have to set an example that we believe in science. The vaccine has been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). I don’t feel there is any reason we should be holding back. We want to be looked upon as a system that leads based on science, based on facts. It’s not just a matter of optics, it’s a matter of leadership,” she said.

Utah’s Commissioner of Higher Education David Woolstenhulme said the commissioner’s office has been in frequent discussions with legislative leaders and Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration.

Woolstenhulme “strongly encouraged” the board and college and university presidents to keep talking to lawmakers “to make sure that they’re on board with this because the opportunity we have there now could change overnight,” referring to possibility for the system or even a single campus to require vaccination so long as they extend personal, medical and religious exemptions.

The board took no action but will likely meet again within a matter of days, said Chairman Harris Simmons.

HB308 precludes public schools, hospitals and other government entities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations available under emergency use authorizations. With full FDA approval, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the bill’s sponsor, said the Pfizer vaccine will be treated like any other vaccine under state law.

Full FDA approval for COVID-19 vaccine ends Utah ban on government-mandated shots

With fall semester getting underway, some presidents of Utah’s public colleges and universities said despite strong recommendations that students, faculty and staff wear masks, few are, even as COVID-19 cases in the state and nation continue to climb.

Utah Valley University opened on Monday “with unbelievable energy and incredible enthusiasm” as thousands of students returned to on-campus classes, said UVU President Astrid Tuminez. 

“My fear is, hardly anyone is masking,” she said.

Signage and messaging that strongly recommends masking “doesn’t work and yet, we can’t mandate masks,” Tuminez said.

Imposing a vaccination mandate now would come too late to provide much practical protection because it takes a minimum of six weeks for people who receive the Pfizer vaccine to be considered fully immunized, according to the CDC.

Tuminez said she feels, as a university president, that her hands are tied.

“The best we can do is monitor. We have defined our triggers for when to close down, but that’s the best we can do. It’s a hope and a prayer, a hope and a prayer is what it is right now, that fall semester we’ll be able to carry on face to face,” she said.

Ryan Jensen gives Utah Valley University instructor Lauren Brooks a COVID-19 test.
Ryan Jensen gives Utah Valley University instructor Lauren Brooks a COVID-19 test at the university in Orem on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Deputy Commissioner Geoffrey Landward said federal approval of Pfizer’s vaccine opens the door to the possibility of a vaccination requirement on college campuses but state legislation passed during a special session expressly prohibits masking requirements on public college and university campuses and K-12 schools.

HB1007 states “under no circumstances can we require face coverings, and that’s not only in the classroom but for school-sponsored sporting activities, extracurricular activities, dormitories, etc., so that’s pretty much been taken off the table,” said Landward, who is also general counsel.

Simmons, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, said he hopes the masking prohibition will be lifted.

“Personally, I would love to see that revisited and I suspect many of you would as well,” he said.

UVU’s faculty has asked the governor to empower the university to implement a mask mandate to protect students, faculty, staff and communities from further spread of COVID-19.

“We are a varied group of educators and we deserve to be protected. For some professors and students, being in a classroom without universal masking will be dangerous. Students and faculty deserve a healthy space to work and learn. A mask mandate would help provide that space,” the university faculty’s open letter to Cox states.

The letter notes that Intermountain Healthcare has reported its intensive care units are at 102% capacity and statewide, 80.9% of ICU beds are occupied.

“A mask mandate is the most effective way to achieve universal masking. ... Without a mask mandate in higher education, we risk further, extensive community spread and jeopardizing the health of vulnerable communities and those too young to be vaccinated,” the letter states.

Tuminez said she would prefer a systemwide approach to vaccine or mask requirements.

“I think it will be quite difficult for just one institution to go that lonely route of saying we will mandate masks or vaccination,” Tuminez said.

The issue is further complicated because thousands of high school students participate in concurrent enrollment courses and it is unclear how college campus requirements would apply to them.

“There are multiple layers of complexity. Opening the gate to that mandate would be quite complex and difficult for just one institution,” she said.

A COVID-19 vaccination is given at Utah Valley University in Orem on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.
A COVID-19 vaccination is given at Utah Valley University in Orem on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Dr. Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health and dean of the School of Medicine, responding to the board’s questions, said the U. faculty is “on a spectrum that runs from anxious to angry. We have received multiple communications, including petitions to do something, due to either requirements for masks or requirements for vaccines.”

Weber State University President Brad Mortensen said the university held a town hall on Wednesday and “folks are notably more anxious, angry and feeling the need for some type of action.”

After leaving the meeting, Mortensen said he ran into a student who thanked him for conducting in-person classes this fall.

“She’s a microbiology student and needs that in-person experience and is graduating this semester and didn’t want her last semester to be online. So we run the gamut. We’re not going to be able to please everybody. We’ve got to try to do the best that we can to make sure we can stay teaching on our campuses,” he said.

Under SB107, state-supported colleges and universities are required this fall to offer at least 75% of the number of in-person courses as they offered fall term 2019.

Masks and online learning? What will Utah college campuses look like this fall?

Simmons said the spread of COVID-19 is the biggest threat to Utah’s economy.

“The federal government is kind of at a point where they’re probably going to be out of bullets. We can’t keep responding with the kind of fiscal stimulus that we saw in the first phase of this, not when there are other solutions,” said Simmons, who is also chairman and CEO of Zions Bancorp.

Woolstenhulme said he understands the urgency and “we need to fast pace this.”

He said he needs another week or two to work with legislative leaders “to make sure we’re on good ground as we move forward. They’re starting to meet with their caucuses. They’re starting to have conversations as well, and leadership wants to help us get there,” he said.

The goal is to work responsibly toward a long-term solution, Woolstenhulme said.

“It’s great if we put it in place today, but it can be changed tomorrow. So I just think we need to figure out how to make this a long-term solution for all of us as we move forward. I think with just a little bit more time we can get there, I really do,” he said.