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OU announces stringent COVID precautions for in-person return, but acknowledges fully online semester remains possibility

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Harroz (copy)

Interim OU President Joseph Harroz speaks to the OU Board of Regents Sept. 11, 2019.

OU administrators announced updates for the 2020–21 school year including mandatory COVID-19 testing, increased sanitization measures, more remote accommodations and potential layoffs in a town hall Monday.

President Joseph Harroz said in a Zoom meeting hosted by the Faculty Senate Executive Committee his goal is for students to return to campus in August, but he said he’s not ruling out a fully online semester. Furthermore, Harroz said students in OU housing must participate in COVID-19 testing before returning to campus.

“The first point that I want to cover is the most important,” Harroz said, “and that is that while there are several priorities, and I'll discuss a number of those, the absolute top priority is health, safety and welfare.”

Harroz said he has faith in OU’s masking policy, classroom restructuring and new cleaning practices to provide a safe environment for in person learning, but also said the university is trying to provide online accommodations for students while also working to approve as many staff requests for remote work as possible.

Harroz said while there is no specific trigger that would cause OU to shut its doors to in-person classes once again, he and other leaders will continue to evaluate the situation in order to do right by teachers and students.

“We, despite the political hate we knew we’d receive ... were well ahead of any of our cities going to a masking requirement and we're much more stringent than any of those policies in terms of masking. And so we've been at the leading edge ... and we've also spent millions of dollars on cleaning and all the other efforts ... to make sure (returning to campus is) as safe as we can make it.”

Vice President of Student Affairs David Surratt later said free COVID-19 tests will be mailed to students and administered over Zoom on Aug. 4–5. Surratt also said residents of Greek houses will undergo the same testing. Students will then mail their samples back and will get their results within 48 to 72 hours.

For optimal spacing, Surratt said housing move-ins will be staggered from Aug. 11 to Aug. 16. Once students arrive on campus, free personal protective equipment will be provided, and refusal to wear it without approved accommodation can result in dismissal from class, an Academic Dean’s Referral, or a Student Conduct Referral.

Surratt also said teachers will be given masks to provide to forgetful students and signs will be displayed around campus to encourage students to follow social distancing and masking rules and other safety precautions.

“We'll do a look into how we can continue to support (students) and that will be ongoing,” Surratt said. “And I also want to remind folks that we can continue to shift our thinking as we go on. This is going to be something that we have to work (on) as a community, but we're going to work our hardest to anticipate issues and needs.”

Surratt said of 6,400 OU students who responded to a survey, 73.5 percent said they wear a mask always or often in public. Surratt said the national average of citizens who say they wear masks in public is 65 percent, so it’s a good sign that students appear to be accepting of the university’s new policy. 

Other steps toward creating a safer campus include new sanitization measures in addition to the university’s Clean and Green initiative. Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Conrad said OU is one of the higher education leaders in electrostatic cleaning, which janitorial employees will perform every evening. 

Conrad also said OU spent $2 million on Synexis Spheres, a disinfectant system that will be placed in all residence halls to kill bacteria in the air and on surfaces. Along with cleaning efforts, Conrad said the university is adding touchless faucets, toilets and other fixtures where possible throughout campus. 

“(My staff members) have been preparing and are excited for everyone to come back to campus and see what it looks like,” Conrad said. “I drove around on Saturday for several hours and the campus is looking very good, signs are up and we’re ready to be open.”

Interim Provost and Senior Vice President Jill Irvine said she’s committed to keeping faculty accommodations fluid as the pandemic continues to change. Irvine said her office will provide social distancing and safety guidelines for those teaching in person this fall, and her office is reviewing the requests for remote work provided by faculty thus far.

“As the health situation evolves, we'll be prepared to tweak this plan or to throw it out all together,” Irvine said. “If new challenges to faculty welfare arise, we'll make additional resources available. Working together, I believe we can find the best way forward to provide an excellent and inclusive education in the face of what will surely be the long and difficult process of learning to live with COVID-19.”

Irvine also said she’s concerned about housing and food employees who Harroz said might be laid off due to budget cuts if residence halls are unable to open. Irvine said any decision to keep school off campus for another semester must take those employees into consideration.

In addition to its heightened safety regulations, Harroz said the university may release its written strategic plan at OU’s next Board of Regents meeting. However, Harroz said, those and other ambitious plans are not exempt from cautious proceedings in light of COVID-19.

Mason Young is a journalism sophomore and The Daily's assistant sports editor. He covers OU football and previously covered OU women's gymnastics and former Sooners in the NFL. He has also spent some time as a senior news reporter for The Daily.

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