Four-year universities will require masks — at least for now

Idaho’s public four-year universities are reinstating mask mandates — less than two weeks before the start of fall classes.

The policy isn’t yet final. The State Board of Education gets the last word, and will vote on the policy later this month.

In the meantime, the face mask requirements will cover indoor facilities on campus, and some outdoor settings as well — regardless of the vaccination status of a student, employee or visitor.

“Although we hoped that this year would look more like pre-pandemic years, sharp increases in Delta variant COVID infections are concerning,” Boise State University President Marlene Tromp and fellow administrators said in a Wednesday email to the university community.

As the delta variant continues to drive case surges across the nation, Idaho is seeing a rapid rise in new case numbers. The 754 cases reported Tuesday represent the state’s largest one-day case count in nearly seven months.

The emergence of the Delta variant clearly weighed on university officials’ minds Wednesday.

“This variant is highly contagious, spreading quickly in our communities, and causing an increase in breakthrough cases,” Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee said in an email to students.

Satterlee said Idaho State would review its policy every two weeks. The University of Idaho plans to review its requirement every three weeks, President C. Scott Green and Provost Torrey Lawrence said Wednesday. Boise State’s plans are more open-ended.

“As with everything COVID related, this remains a dynamic situation. Should conditions improve significantly, these requirements will be revisited,” university officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Lewis-Clark State College has not decided on a mask policy for the fall. That decision should come by the end of the week.

The four-year schools — Boise State, the U of I, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark — required face coverings for 2020-21. But in order to go forward with a similar requirement this fall, they will need the State Board’s go-ahead.

The board’s executive committee — President Kurt Liebich, Vice President David Hill and Secretary Linda Clark — have discussed the mask requirements with college and university officials. The proposal will come before the eight-member board at its next meeting, on Aug. 25 and 26.

“The board has to decide whether to ratify or not,” State Board spokesman Mike Keckler said Wednesday.

Fall classes begin at all four four-year schools on Aug. 23, days before the State Board meeting.

While the schools can mandate face coverings, with the State Board’s approval, they cannot require vaccines. Gov. Brad Little’s executive order banning “vaccine passports” applies to the higher education system.

Still, the four-year schools used Wednesday’s announcements to renew their push for vaccinations. At the U of I, for example, vaccinated students will receive gift cards for the university bookstore or campus food services, and will be eligible for drawings for awards of up to $5,000.

“It is up to us as individuals to do what is right for our fellow Vandals,” Green and Lawrence said Wednesday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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