CEDAR FALLS — A University of Northern Iowa biology professor removed from a class due to his mask requirement will return to teaching those students – from a distance.
Professor Steve O’Kane Jr. said he worked with his department chairperson and dean to return to the plant systematics classroom virtually. He is getting help from a colleague for the in-person aspects of the lab-heavy course.
“Basically, what I plan to do is to meet over Zoom for an extended period on Tuesdays,” he said in an interview, for the lecture portion of the class. Students will then gather for a shortened lab period on Thursdays where the colleague, with expertise in plant anatomy and diversity, “will guide them through the materials that I’ve left out.”
A UNI spokesman released a statement announcing the change.
“After listening to the concerns and working closely with all parties involved, the University of Northern Iowa has reached an agreement with a faculty member to continue teaching his course,” the statement said.
“Board (of Regents) and university policy has not changed and masks will not be mandated in the class. Biology Professor Steve O’Kane will instead teach his Plant Systematics course and lab online. Another high-qualified professor will handle other classroom duties.”
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The Board of Regents in May lifted indoor mask requirements on campuses of Iowa’s public universities.
“UNI continues to support the rights of all our faculty, staff and students and is pleased to have reached a resolution that protects all of those involved,” the statement said.
O’Kane was removed from the in-person class last week for imposing a mask mandate and threatening to lower grades for violators to mitigate the potential for exposure to COVID-19. He had also introduced a resolution to the UNI Faculty Senate which would have endorsed actions of individual professors to protect the health of those in their classrooms, like requiring masks, even if not allowed by state law or regents’ guidance. It was not approved.
“The people that this impacts the strongest are my students,” O’Kane said, explaining why he was willing to teach under the new arrangement. “They’re the ones that aren’t getting what they signed up for. It just isn’t fair.”
Still, he said, “I think the proper word here is it’s acceptable,” when it comes to the hybrid approach of continuing the class. “That’s not me. I’m the kind of guy, I’m going to give these students the very best that I’m capable of.”
Since being removed from the class, O’Kane said he has received support from many UNI colleagues and “hundreds of faculty from across the nation. This situation is striking a nerve throughout the country,” he said.
Without requiring masks for indoor settings, he emphasized that UNI is falling short of safeguarding “the health and safety of everybody” at the university. “They are doing everything they can while still obeying the policy put forth by the Board of Regents,” he said.
O’Kane believes the regents are not allowing mask requirements to “mollify” Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republicans who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature since there’s no state law forbidding mandates at the universities. “The Board of Regents should not be playing with people’s lives.”
Josh Lehman, senior communications director for the regents, said in a statement that the board’s “guiding principle” this fall “has been to give students a return to as much of a traditional educational experience and student life activities as possible.”
He added, “The Board and our public universities have been very clear that we support the COVID-19 vaccines and will continue to strongly encourage all our faculty, staff and students to receive it. They are widely available, including on our campuses, and we will continue to stress the importance of being fully vaccinated. We want as many people to get vaccinated as soon as possible, as vaccines are by far the best protection against COVID.”
Lehman noted that the regents “strongly encourage” people to wear a mask or other face covering while on campus.