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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

UM System Board of Curators votes against requiring masks on campuses

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia

The University of Missouri system will not require masks on its campuses, despite record high COVID case rates across the state. The Board of Curators made the decision Tuesday, rejecting two recommendations from UM System President and University of Missouri Chancellor Mun Choi.

In response to skyrocketing cases putting a strain on UM system hospitals and other critical infrastructure, Choi made two proposals. The first would have mandated the use of masks indoors when attendance was required and social distancing was not possible. The second would have only required masks in classrooms and labs.

Choi pointed to a projection from the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation which showed the use of masking in Missouri could reduce infections by more than 1 million people.

"Scientifically, it will have the effect of reducing the transmission of COVID that will result in less Missourians getting infected," Choi said.

After questioning the effectiveness of mandates, the board ultimately voted down the recommendations by a wide margin, with curators Julia Brncic and Maurice Graham providing the only "yes" votes on both measures.

COVID cases and hospitalizations have hit record highs in January, driven largely by the spread of the omicron variant. In Boone County, home of the flagship University of Missouri campus, there were more than 2,000 active cases as of Monday afternoon, just under the record-setting 2,109 active cases recorded January 7.

Choi highlighted the impact tens of thousands of students returning to campus could have on the community, with hospitalizations on the rise in every city with a system campus.

While the University of Missouri has made its own decisions about COVID policy independent of the board in the past, spokesperson Christian Basi maintained, in an email, the board has ultimate authority.

"They can delegate authority for specific decisions," Basi wrote. "Specifically, in the case of masking and vaccine mandates, the Board has clarified in earlier meetings that they expected to make the final decision on those matters."

Before adjourning Tuesday's meeting, Brncic asked Choi to bring updates to the board if hospitalizations dramatically increase or if hospitals are unable to maintain staffing requirements.

Board chair Darryl Chatman, who voted against both recommendations, echoed Brncic's request. "If we need to reconsider, we'll reconsider," he said.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.