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Last week, UM’s faculty senate and student government passed resolutions calling for the University and the Board of Regents to enforce stricter masking requirements and a vaccination mandate. Though the resolutions don’t actually change any legislation at UM, they speak to the overall feelings of University students, faculty and staff.

The demands come at a time when Missoula County has reported a total of more than 1,000 active COVID-19 cases — comparable only to the county’s November 2020 all-time peak of more than 1,200. 

The county saw 221 new COVID cases Monday. The last time Missoula reported more than 100 cases in a day was December 2020, said Cindy Farr, the county’s COVID-19 incident commander in a video Sept. 10.  

It’s clear things aren’t getting better. If only there was a simple solution. If only we had an FDA-approved, scientifically effective way to fight the virus. Like, a protection we could equip our immune system with. 

Oh wait… we do. And the University — or university system — could fight to require it.

Right now, UM has a mask requirement in classrooms and labs. That’s it. Masks are recommended everywhere else, but all of the unmasked students crammed in the student section at Saturday’s football game — where the “recommendation” was in effect — know how much weight that carried. And even last year, it took the Board of Regents recommending a mask mandate (capital M, Mandate), for UM to to instate one. At the time the virus was at its peak in Missoula.

There seems to be an obvious solution, and it’s presented clearly in each of the passed resolutions: require vaccines. If history tells us anything, it’s a solution the Board of Regents, not the University, will have to enforce.

When people say Montana universities can’t require COVID-19 vaccinations, they’re usually referring to language in Montana House Bill 702, Section 1, which says a person or governmental entity may not discriminate on the basis of vaccination status, including denying educational opportunities. 

So that’s it, our hands are tied because of HB 702? Not so, says Anthony Johnstone, constitutional law professor at the Alexander Blewett School of Law.

The language of the bill includes one caveat. The second part of Section 1 says the prohibition of vaccination mandates does NOT apply to vaccine requirements made by schools that abide by Title 20, chapter 5, part 4 of the Montana Code Annotated. That section says “the governing authority of a postsecondary school may impose immunization requirements as a condition of attendance that are more stringent.”

The Board of Regents also has a policy that says individual campuses or programs may have additional immunization requirements.

“As it is now, HB 702 is clear that it exempts student vaccination requirements in Montana law, and the Board of Regents policy is clear that it is consistent with campuses’ ability to impose more stringent vaccinations requirements at the campus level,” Johnstone said.

Aside from HB 702, UM is already operating under two conflicting executive orders. 

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed executive order 7-2021 April 13, prohibiting government agencies from requiring vaccinations as a condition of attendance. Then on Sept. 9, President Biden signed an executive order mandating all businesses with more than 100 employees require COVID-19 vaccinations or face weekly testing. 

UM doesn’t expect Biden’s order to change anything at the University, said Dave Kuntz, UM communication director, as UM faculty and staff are state employees operating under Gianforte’s order. And if the order did extend to universities, that too would be the regents responsibility to enforce, said Lucy France, UM legal counsel. 

Right now, France is not looking into the Montana Code Annotated exemption that might allow UM to mandate vaccines independent of the Board of Regents, Kuntz said.

“We felt it’s been pretty clear with HB 702 and the executive order, that we’re pretty clear where we are,” Kuntz said. “But [a vaccine mandate is] something that at this minute, the University is not in a position to implement, specifically because that authority as we believe rests with the Board of Regents.”

So it seems UM is content to pass the buck, and wait for the regents to make their decision. But how long is the University willing to wait? What critical point does Missoula have to reach for the University, or the regents, to require vaccinations? 

It’s clear vaccination is effective in both preventing the spread (a study from Public Health England reported the vaccine reduced the chance of virus transmission by an average of 50%) and the severity (in August, the CDC reported the vaccine is more than 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations, even with the emergence of the Delta variant) of COVID-19. And the University — or the Board of Regents, at least — has the ability to mandate this protection.

Students and faculty have spoken. Administrators with the power need to take action. If UM isn’t willing to act on its own, it should be bold in urging the regents to protect the campus and require vaccinations.

— Addie Slanger, Editor-in-Chief

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