Update, July 6, 5:30 p.m.: Four days after the petition began, the number of signatures has reached 1,339.
Update, July 6, 4:13 p.m.: Asked for the university's response to the petition, OU Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith sent the following statement to The Daily:
"The pandemic has created challenges never seen before and with that comes a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. The University has received and reviewed the petition and, as has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, is keeping the safety, health, and welfare of each community member in mind as plans for a fall return continue to develop. Norman campus faculty will receive information on possible flexible teaching arrangements this week. Similar information for Norman campus staff and students is forthcoming."
Over 650 signatures — those of students, staff, faculty and Norman residents — line the petition addressed to OU administrators to adjust reopening policies for the fall semester.
The petition, which has circulated widely in multiple university communities, lists four major proposals geared at maintaining safety and privacy for each group of stakeholders: Allowing instructors to choose whether they want to teach online or in-person, allowing students to choose whether they take classes online or in-person, allowing staff who are able to meet their responsibilities remotely to do so and ensuring that no OU community member will be required to disclose their or their family’s personal medical conditions in order to be able to teach, work or learn remotely.
The Daily spoke with several university stakeholders about their thoughts on the petition and their concerns for the university as it prepares to receive over 30,000 faculty, staff and students this August.
Michael Givel, an OU political science professor, said his safety concerns extend further than his own personal safety — to that of his family.
Givel, who is in a high-risk age group, said his son, an OU student, is immunocompromised and in a “very significant at-risk category.” He said as a parent, the pressure and responsibility to not bring the virus home every day once in-person classes begin is overwhelming.
“I’m frantic,” Givel said. “And I’m worried. And frankly, I’m pretty angry.”
Givel said he went through the proper channels of requesting an ADA accommodation to work remotely this fall and was denied.
“It doesn’t matter that I’m over 65,” Givel said. “It doesn’t matter that my son is in an at-risk category who could get infected — an OU student — it doesn’t matter.”
Givel said he was told he could use his two weeks of FMLA sick leave, but he said that option isn’t a long-term answer to his or other employees’ concerns.
“This was the other big solution — to go out on sick leave for two weeks,” Givel said. “Well, as we know, that’s ridiculous because the semester is much longer than that. And of course, I’m paying for it out of my own sick leave.”
Givel said he was told departments were going to be flexible with allowing accommodations for faculty, but his experience says otherwise.
“In the case of the political science department, there’s no flexibility,” Givel said. “We have very few online classes, and there has been no movement or interest in moving to allow for accommodation for an online class.”
Givel said the university cannot account for all of the variables associated with having in-person classes, such as the bottleneck entry to buildings and classrooms, students refusing to wear masks long-term and students interacting with the Norman community in bars, restaurants and potential football games.
Asked about the ethical responsibility of the university to prevent potential student, faculty, staff and Norman community deaths or long-term health issues, Givel said he hasn’t seen enough attention paid to the community’s concerns to feel optimistic.
“I don’t think they care,” Givel said. “That’s the message we’ve been getting. It's, ‘We want to open up, and we want to act like things are the way they were a year ago, and make sure that people go into the dorms.’ And at the bottom of it, I think it has to do with revenues.”
Givel is the statewide secretary for the American Association of University Professors. According to Givel and the AAUP website, the group is primarily an advocacy organization for academic freedom for U.S. professors.
The OU Faculty Handbook features the AAUP’s Academic Freedom policy, which was adopted by the OU Board of Regents. June 29, AAUP — in partnership with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and the American Council on Education — posted its “Principles of Governance During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” in which it said decisions related to holding classes online “fall within the faculty’s area of primary responsibility.”
“Even in areas where the faculty does not exercise primary authority — such as budgetary matters and long-range planning — the faculty still has the right, under principles of shared governance, to expect meaningful participation in the decision-making process,” the post said. “None of these decisions should be made unilaterally by administrations or governing boards.”
In April, 212 university community members requested increased accommodations — including faculty participation in discussions on instructional methods — in part using a statement from the AAUP in its memo. The university responded with a statement, saying it is “appreciative and understanding” of the “concerns raised,” and that OU has “kept safety at the forefront of all decision-making.”
In addition to faculty, students like Student Government Association President Justin Norris signed the petition.
“I was elected to this position, and a huge part of my platform was to amplify student voices and to make sure that students felt as if they were being advocated for,” Norris said. “... It honestly comes down to a point of making sure that students’ lives are protected and (will) be protected.”
Norris said his decision to sign the petition comes from his belief that university community members should be able to choose their level of risk when classes begin this fall.
“I believe in the ability to choose,” Norris said. “I believe in discussion. ... I think that signing it is important, and I hope that it can bring about a discussion between students, faculty, staff and OU administration on how they can adjust the plan in order to make sure that people who want to come back to campus are safe when they’re on campus, but also those who just do not feel safe going back to campus can continue to be an active member of the community, while ensuring their own personal health and the health of their families.”
Norris said he acknowledged the precautionary measures OU is taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but the university must weigh the potential for a devastating outbreak against the desire to return to normalcy.
“I do understand that of course, we want to return to campus because something that makes us so special, I think, is that feeling of community,” Norris said. “... And also, I’m sure that there are a plethora of other good reasons for wanting to have classes in-person in the fall, but I do think that all of that goes by the wayside if we’re talking about the loss of life or serious ailment. … We’re talking about somebody potentially dying or contracting a life-threatening disease that could really ravage their lifestyle and their family dynamic — all of these things for the sake of returning to campus.”
Samer Shehata, an OU international and area studies professor and faculty senator, said he signed the petition for similar reasons.
“I chose to sign the petition because I'm extremely concerned about the spread of the virus and ... its consequences, known and unknown,” Shehata said. “... Like many staff and faculty members, I have children, and I'm worried about them.”
Shehata said he signed not only out of concern for his family, but also for the Norman community.
“One should sensibly, of course, be concerned about what could happen in the fall in a situation of 30,000-plus people being on campus, interacting with one another, some of them adhering to … the quite sensible guidelines recommended by the university leadership — others not doing so,” Shehata said. “And that is inevitable. And the consequences — as we’ve seen in Oklahoma and in Texas, the greater region and across the country — the situation is not getting any better. In fact, it’s getting worse.”
According to the Oklahoma Health Department, Cleveland County reported 68 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the highest day of new cases to date. This week, Cleveland County reported 151 new COVID-19 infections.
Cleveland County has largely been spared by the virus surges of Oklahoma’s larger cities, reporting mostly single-digit daily cases since a spike at the beginning of April. Over the last two weeks, however, the county reported 269 new cases.
“One can imagine a situation — not just on our campus, but on other campuses — in which some people, including young students — not just elderly faculty and staff members — become gravely ill, and even worse, as a result of something like this,” Shehata said. “And remember, we're not just talking about the people who are on campus — students, staff, and faculty and so on. We're talking about their families as well. And we're talking about the wider spread of disease across the country.”
Shehata said the petition doesn’t propose a drastic change to the reopening plan, like a return to all-online classes, but instead offers a hybrid model that prioritizes choice.
“What the petition is stating is that we should have a choice,” Shehata said. “And I think that's quite reasonable under the current situation, and with the uncertainty involved, and precisely because we can many of us — faculty and staff — do what we have to do. We can provide quality education and do our jobs without being physically present and without endangering ourselves, our families and others.”
Ultimately, Shehata said, the university community — and especially employees — are being given an impossible decision.
“You never want to have to choose between livelihood ... or the safety of your family,” Shehata said. “No one wants to make that kind of a choice.”