Arkansas' largest system of college campuses has joined other state colleges and universities in requiring masks on campus, with some exceptions for when sports or public-health authorities say it's OK not to wear one.
University of Arkansas System trustees approved a resolution Wednesday directing chancellors to develop policies that will, at a minimum, require face coverings when social distancing can't be maintained to prevent a coronavirus outbreak on campus.
Classes begin in about a month, and campuses have begun asking more faculty and staff members to return to on-campus work.
While many colleges and systems in the U.S. have opted to continue online-only course delivery during the pandemic, Arkansas institutions have opted to return to face-to-face classes. UA System trustees in May directed all campuses to do so this fall.
In Arkansas and across the U.S., face-covering resolutions have been key components in schools' plans to welcome people back to campus.
At the same time, the number of coronavirus cases in the state is rising, and schools are making contingency plans for if they must pivot back to online-only instruction. Higher-education leaders expect fall enrollments, and revenue from tuition and state appropriations, to decline in the upcoming academic year.
At Wednesday's meeting, Trustee Ed Fryar asked University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Chancellor Cam Patterson about the academic medical center's projections that foresee as many as 100,000 active cases of the virus in Arkansas this fall.
"That's a very sobering number, when you think about it," Fryar said. "Do the various campuses of the U of A system, are they set up to handle that type of an increase?"
Patterson said he's been speaking with System President Donald Bobbitt and other universities' chancellors about managing outbreaks on campus, which he said were "bound to happen."
"We need to be prepared to bring students back to our campuses, but at the same time, we need to be prepared for what is going to happen if there is an outbreak," Patterson said.
He noted outbreaks occurring at universities among student-athletes, and he said a similar effect was likely to be seen in "congregate settings," such as residence halls.
He said UAMS was prepared to offer related input to the UA System.
Under the approved mask resolution, UA System chancellors can make their own face-covering policies even stricter, but the policies should include "reasonable exceptions for certain settings and activities that follow guidance established by public health agencies and/or by external governing bodies such as athletics conferences and the NCAA."
Last month, trustees backed off from a similar proposal, which didn't include the language on exceptions, after Chairman John Goodson said he was worried it would prohibit practicing for sports, namely football.
While one major athletic conference has announced a reduced football schedule this fall and some smaller conferences have called off football entirely, the Southeastern Conference, of which the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville is a member, has not made modifications to its planned football schedule.
The Hogs are scheduled to start the season against the University of Nevada on Sept. 5 in Fayetteville.
On Wednesday, trustees made quick work of the revised resolution, adopting it after Bobbitt said he'd earlier run it by all the chancellors for approval.
Numerous other colleges across the state require face coverings on campus, although policies and their enforcement vary school-to-school. The UA System resolution directs chancellors to create their own policies, and no enforcement language was included.
At Arkansas State University, masks are required indoors when people can't stay 6 feet apart, spokesman Bill Smith said. As for sports, teams follow their own guidelines for "distancing and group sizes to allow them to work out without masks."
At Arkansas Tech University, student-athletes must wear masks to and from practice facilities but don't need to wear masks during training if they remain 12 or more feet apart, spokesman Sam Strasner said.
Campuses are still compiling or fine-tuning plans for the fall, including plans to reopen and to test for the virus and trace positive cases as the year moves along.
Four campuses -- the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts -- updated trustees on their plans so far to reopen. Three of those campuses are residential, facing the challenges of face-to-face teaching during the covid-19 pandemic and protecting living quarters from the spread of the coronavirus.
The Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, a residential high school operated by the system, will have just more than 200 students on campus this fall, with many choosing to do online-only course work from home, Director Corey Alderdice said. That number isn't quite low enough to make distancing on campus easy, but it provides flexibility, he said. The Hot Springs school likely will limit more than usual its students' ability to leave campus, and the campus will remain open during the one week each month the school typically requires students to return home.
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Terisa Riley detailed plans for instruction and the bevy of personal protective equipment planned for the students, faculty and staff.
Everyone, other than visitors, will receive two reusable and washable masks, Riley said. Visitors will receive disposable ones. Faculty members will each get a face shield and two tubs of 300 disinfecting wipes. Staff members will get one tub.
And for everyone's use, the university has made an online locator map of every hand-sanitizer station.
Every course will have online components, Riley explained. Courses will be fully online, online with synchronous meeting times, or a hybrid of online and in-person classes.
All courses at the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain, including face-to-face ones, will have materials posted online for anyone who wasn't on campus, or couldn't be on campus, to see, Chancellor Phillip Wilson said.
The reopening will coincide with what was supposed to be a big year for a different kind of change at the Mena college.
The college was starting residential, dining and new sports programs this fall. It still will, but with some changes, Wilson told trustees.
The college also will try to limit residential students' travel off campus, he said, and it will provide mandatory "sanitization" training for all students who live on campus.
The National Junior College Athletic Association has delayed most sports until the spring. That affects everything but cross country track at the University of Arkansas Community College at Rich Mountain.
The change gives the college "breathing room" to adjust to the pandemic, Wilson said.
"I very much supported that direction," he said.
Wilson said he wants to be ready to change operations for whatever happens.
"We're going to be ready to turn on a dime," he said.
Information for this article was contributed by Kat Stromquist of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.