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OU faculty, staff ask Board of Regents for change in COVID mitigation policies

The Norman Transcript
The Norman Transcript
 28 days ago
Jennifer Davis, an associate professor of early modern European history at the University of Oklahoma, holds a sign Monday during the OU Board of Regents’ meeting at the Robert M. Bird Library, Health Sciences Center. Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

The University of Oklahoma’s Board of Regents heard directly from the community Monday as faculty members spoke out to ask administrators for stronger pandemic mitigation policies and safer classrooms.

Monday’s regents’ meeting — a gathering usually sparsely attended by the public — drew around a dozen faculty and staff, responding to a public call for community action. Members of the community organized two “OU Days of Action” on Monday and Tuesday of this week, calling those interested to Monday’s regents meeting and to a noon demonstration on the steps of OU’s Evans Hall Tuesday.

The days of action, according to organizers, are designed to call attention to and prompt change in OU’s COVID response protocols.

The university mandated masking in campus buildings last year and reduced classroom capacities, among other decisions. This year, OU has “strongly encourage(d)” masks, and has not required vaccines or implemented classroom capacity restrictions.

Administrators say they will wait to take any action until they hear the results of legal challenges to Senate Bill 658, which prohibits public universities and schools from requiring vaccinations or masking.

The university’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that last week — the most recent week with data available — 5.18% of people tested through OU Health Services tested positive. The number is down from previous weeks — in the first week of September, 23% of those tested were positive. More than 30% of those tested the week prior were positive.

On Monday, faculty members said they have tried every other way to push for stronger policies this year, and pleaded with the regents to create change. While time for public comments isn’t usually built into regents meetings, faculty asked for time Monday.

“It breaks my heart to see the way that faculty, students and staff at the University of Oklahoma are left to our own devices and are betrayed and abandoned by the leadership of this state,” Julie Ward, an associate professor of 20th and 21st Century Latin American literature, told the board Monday. “You all are very influential people and very smart people, and I know you can find a way to make it safe for us, because we want to go back too.”

After faculty comments, the board quickly exited into executive session without comment on the public feedback, moving to another conference room. University President Joe Harroz was unavailable for comment, staff said.

Board Chair Michael Cawley said while the regents would discuss the feedback they heard in executive session, the board generally leaves pandemic policy matters to Harroz and university health experts.

“As a practical matter, Joe (Harroz) and his staff have much better input and communication with the experts, and we generally defer to them — from my standpoint, that’s really a decision for Joe and his team to make,” Cawley told The Transcript.

Organizers’ asks

The Days of Action have included a letter, signed by OU faculty, students, staff, alumni and Norman residents, asking that the university implement a list of COVID mitigation protocols that include:

  • Making the COVID-19 vaccine one of OU’s required vaccinations
  • Making masking mandatory. Currently, the university “strongly encourages” masking in most campus settings.
  • Allowing faculty, staff and students to work and study remotely while the pandemic continues, and providing hazard pay to those who must work on campus
  • Creating a comprehensive pandemic plan, complete with a plan for administering upcoming booster shots

In the meantime, along with Monday’s meeting attendance and Tuesday’s demonstration, those behind the days of action encouraged OU faculty and staff to cancel classes, teach online, dedicate a day of lessons to learning about public health and worker protection, excuse student absences or write directly to the regents. They also encourage students, if possible, to stay home from classes those days.

“I have invested a lot in this community, and this community has invested a lot in me,” Jennifer Davis, an associate professor of history at OU, told The Transcript. “I am here because I’ve tried every other avenue — I have gone to my dean, I have gone to the provost, I have gone to the president, I have sat outside their offices, I have had Zoom meetings with everyone who has the power to change the current situation on campus. They have told me that they’re not willing to change it.”

Davis said the Days of Action were the next logical step. Because of the grassroots nature of the action, Davis said it’s unclear how many people are participating, but organizers offered several options for tiered levels of accessibility.

“All across campus, we have people who are participating in some very visible ways and in some less visible ways, and that’s appropriate given their precarity in the profession,” Davis said. “The University of Oklahoma employs a lot of adjunct instructors, folks who really feel like they can’t make a big public statement, so it’s really recognizing that. It means we have to provide a protest that gives folks a lot of different avenues.”

Two of those community members spoke to the regents during the meeting. Alongside Ward, Associate Professor Amit Baishya pleaded with the board and OU President Joe Harroz to make the campus as safe as possible.

“I was not born in Oklahoma — my home is in India, and I saw the delta variant wreck havoc in my country just three or four months ago,” said Baishya, who teaches in OU’s Department of English. “Eight people I knew died … all I would say, and all I would beseech the Board of Regents and the president, is to enact good policy, so that basically, we could keep our loved ones safe.

“…Every time I go to my class, and I come back and see an unmasked student, I am scared for my infant son … I don’t want him to go the way — one of my friend’s sons died in India as well.”

Ward said after the meeting that she shared her personal story — her ties to Oklahoma and education in the state — with the board to show members “that this comes from a place of deep caring and love for this community — and also from a place of desperation.” Ward, a Spanish professor, said it’s been difficult to be tasked with the responsibility of keeping her students safe “without the backing of the institution.”

“We depend on them to keep us safe — they’re the ones with the authority and the responsibility to give us a fully-vaccinated campus so that we can have the wonderful, in-person experience that we all long for,” Ward said.

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