Editor’s note: This story contains quotes from three students involved in OU’s Greek life organizations. The sources were granted anonymity for fear of retaliation for speaking with The Daily and are referred to by pseudonyms throughout the article. Their identities are known to The Daily.
Behind a joyful social media facade, some members of Greek life have shared their anxiety about seeing videos of their peers breaking COVID-19 precautions at unsanctioned Greek life events, including parties and photoshoots with no masks.
Photos circulating social media depicting densely packed crowds at Campus Corner bars and pictures of groups on Greek row with a lack of masks gave these students a mix of anxiety, anger and embarrassment for being involved.
“I feel angry and disappointed because I think it is ignorant,” said Ashley Thomas, a student involved in Panhellenic Greek life. “Seeing that makes me furious and I think it’s embarrassing.”
According to Thomas, at least one sorority threatened legal action in a message to members if students spoke to The Daily regarding events which violated the university’s COVID-19 protocol. The Daily attempted to acquire documentation of this message, but the sources did not feel comfortable providing a screenshot.
Since students have returned to campus, Norman has seen a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases. Prior to Aug. 11 — the date students began moving back to campus for the fall semester — the largest single-day increase Norman recorded was 58 new cases on July 14. On Sept. 5, the first day of the Labor Day weekend, Norman reported 196 new cases, more than tripling its previous single-day high.
Some of the data appears linked to students living off-campus or in Greek housing. On Sept. 3, OU’s COVID-19 dashboard reported 143 students living in on-campus housing were tested by Goddard Health Center. Of those students, only three tested positive, a positive test rate of 2 percent. As of Sept. 2, the positive test result rate of all tests conducted at Goddard was over 30 percent.
According to Goddard Health Center Medical Director Dr. Craig Rice, the OU dashboard numbers only reflect tests conducted at Goddard. Tests conducted at off-campus locations will appear in the Norman and Cleveland County data only.
Director of Student Life Quy Nguyen said the university cannot “directly” track positive cases of COVID-19 in individual Greek organizations.
“OU’s division of Student Affairs has advised and provided counsel to each Greek chapter regarding testing contact tracing, isolation, and other safety protocols related to COVID-19,” Nguyen said. “Each chapter operates independently from the university. Because of this OU cannot directly track cases for individual Greek-affiliated houses.”
At a Sept. 2 Norman City Council meeting, Dean of Students David Surratt said while the university has given recommendations to Greek houses on how to handle COVID-19 outbreaks in their organizations, they cannot guarantee the Greek organizations follow these recommendations.
“We’ve … given them recommendations to do the same thing we’re doing in housing, but I emphasize it is a recommendation,” Surratt said. “Some houses are definitely better than others when it comes to that, but they have the same expectation to isolate individuals who have symptoms or test positive.”
Thomas said they were “embarrassed” to see Greek organization members wearing their letters to events disregarding COVID-19 safety protocols given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
“When I see people with their letters on, I would be embarrassed,” Thomas said. “I think it’s shameful.”
From Aug. 8 to Aug. 30, the Norman Police Department has responded to 55 “loud party” calls, according to NPD logs. Officers were dispatched to a “loud party” report at a Greek organization’s house twice in one week, according to the logs. On Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, NPD responded to calls at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house.
However, Gracie Clayton, another student in Panhellenic, said the blame isn’t solely on Greek houses, adding that OU Greek life organizations were put in a difficult situation by the OU Panhellenic Association.
Although recruitment was moved “completely virtual” ths year after unsanctioned gatherings which broke COVID-19 protocols, students already in Greek houses were told to come back to campus to do training and prepare for recruitment prior to the switch; not giving them a chance to have fully virtual recruitment before the organization moved everything online, according to Clayton. Members were told to meet in person for recruitment and certain positions had to be in person for the majority of recruitment.
“Because of Panhellenic, Greek life has been put in an impossible situation. I think it was irresponsible of Panhellenic to make recruitment happen in the fall,” Clayton said. “I blame Panhellenic for letting rush happen — even though it was virtual, it wasn’t virtual for those already in sororities. OU should be held responsible for letting these things happen.”
Clayton also said it was irresponsible of the university to put too much trust in students to adhere to its COVID-19 protocols for an in-person semester.
“It’s extremely frustrating but at the same time I’m not surprised; OU is also at fault for even having in-person classes,” Clayton said. “Obviously people should be responsible enough to not have parties, and in theory they wouldn’t, but we can’t trust everyone with that.”
Nguyen said the administration has advised Greek life organizations but cannot exercise significant control over how the houses handle COVID-19 protocols, as Greek houses are “privately owned, off-campus residences.”
Nguyen also mentioned the protocols for sanctioned Greek events, which include a consultation with a member of the Student Affairs team two weeks before the event. Those who break these protocols will possibly face “educational sanctions” for breaking the university code.
“Educational sanctions can range from written warning to expulsion from the institution; or anything in between that can best help facilitate learning for the student,” Nguyen said.
However, some students involved in Panhellenic believe there should be significant consequences on the organizational level for having any unsanctioned event in person, including parties.
“I would hope that there would be serious consequences,” Clayton said. “To suspend (Greek life) would be the wise thing to do. I would be upset if when inevitably they have to send everyone (home), they don’t mention the role Greek life had.”
Since other universities have begun shifting back to online, several media outlets like the New York Times have covered the ties between campus closure and Greek life. These students said they believe OU should have learned from the errors of other universities.
“When you look at outbreaks at different schools, it all comes back to Greek life,” Hannah Erickson, a student involved in Panhellenic, said. “We should’ve learned from their mistakes. Greek life already has a bad (reputation),and I think doing this is just hurting them more than benefiting them.”
Erickson said she thinks Greek organizations have not allowed members to speak to the media in an effort to maintain their image and avoid public scrutiny.
“I think they just want one story where they can control the narrative,” Erickson said. “I think it’s just so they don’t look bad.”