FILE - University of Missouri

In this Oct. 10, 2019, photo Mizzou's historic columns, with Jesse Hall in the background, can be seen on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia.

(The Center Square) – The University of Missouri Board of Curators had multiple split votes against COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students and staff and for an extension of its mask mandate during the last two weeks.

“I think we took a vote today for individual liberty and freedom,” said Darryl M. Chatman, chairman of the board of curators, after a 5-3 vote on Sept. 2. “We will not be mandating any vaccines for our faculty, staff and students. If anyone was wondering, they now have an answer. Any questions people may have, I think this brought some clarity.”

University of Missouri President Mun Choi said some exceptions will be made for those who work in the university’s hospitals in Columbia and Kansas City and those working with young children.

Even though vaccines won’t be mandated, they are strongly encouraged by university leadership.

“I didn't hear a person in the room – and not one curator – say they were against the vaccine,” Chatman said. “Several curators voiced support for it. I don't think this is an anti-vaccination message. That’s definitely not what we’re trying to communicate.”

A mask mandate, instituted on July 21 and set to expire Sept. 15, was extended by a 5-4 vote during an hour-long videoconference on Monday.

Choi reviewed data from other Southeastern Conference Schools with mandates, as well as infection rates of Texas A&M, the University of Florida and the University of Georgia where state legislatures restrict mask mandates.

“I believe, and so do the members of the medical public health team and our medical director, that the masking requirements we've had in the classroom, where there is the most likely situation for college students to transmit COVID, the masking has worked,” Choi said. “For this reason and in order to continue in-person operations, we request the board consider extending the masking requirement we have until Oct. 15.”

Masks are currently required in classrooms and indoor spaces where social distancing isn’t possible, regardless of vaccination status. Masks will not be required outdoors or for fully vaccinated people attending indoor athletic or social events. Masking is required indoors when social distancing isn’t possible and for those not vaccinated.

Most curators weighed in on both sides of the issue.

“I just prefer not to separate masked people from unmasked people,” said Keith Holloway, a curator from Cape Girardeau. “I respect the decisions of both groups. But as far as our university goes, the students should be together as one. If we require masks for the unvaccinated, we should also require mask for vaccinated. I think it’s divisive to put these students in two different categories.”

Jeffrey Layman, a curator from Springfield, said masks aren’t necessary with the probability of more herd immunity to COVID-19 among students and faculty.

“I know a lot of people have had this and my guess is a lot of our students have already had it and they have some protection,” Layman said. “So do I think masking vaccinated students at Mizzou will help? I do not. That's just my opinion.”

In a media release after Monday’s meeting, Chatman praised the work of university leaders as they continue to deal with the pandemic.

“The Board is very pleased with how our universities have been able to stay the course and continue our mission during this pandemic,” Chatman said. “A majority of our board believed providing this extension allows a bit more time to ensure our case rates remain low, our students continue enjoying in-person instruction and activities, and that we support the needs of our health facilities. We will continue to review our communities’ circumstances in a timely manner and be ready to make changes as necessary.”

The University of Missouri-Kansas City and the University of Missouri-St. Louis will continue to follow public health requirements for masking in all indoor spaces. All campuses are promoting on-campus vaccination events, as well as information for off-campus vaccinations.

“I am truly appreciative of the board’s support for extending the classroom masking mandate because it helps us continue our missions of education, research, outreach and economic development,” Choi said. “We have had a smooth start to the academic year at every campus and our cases are low. We look forward to in-person classes and operations continuing this fall.”

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.