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OU President Joseph Harroz, administrators discuss impact of COVID-19 on enrollment, finances in town hall

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Joe Harroz at staff town hall

OU President Joseph Harroz at staff town hall July 30.

OU’s administration hosted a virtual Staff Senate town hall to further outline their Phase III plan and COVID-19 risks in the fall, and to address the concerns of OU community members.

Panelists continued to emphasize the importance of in-person classes despite recent announcements from Oklahoma institutions that either plan to conduct the fall semester online or to not require in-person attendance. According to Interim Provost and Senior Vice President Jill Irvine, over 25 percent of students have one class or fewer online, and almost 75 percent of students have a majority of their classes in-person. 

If OU went fully online, Harroz said the university would experience losses in overall revenue. With a 2.5 percent decrease in undergraduate enrollment this year, Harroz said decisions are being made based on impact, and OU is working to adapt amid the possibility of employee furloughs.

“We haven’t thought through exactly how we can articulate (furloughs) because we don’t know what the financial impact could be,” Harroz said. “But I can promise that we are working with the staff senate (and), as we go through this, we’ll be talking about … minimizing the impact to the maximum extent possible. We certainly know that leaders should lead during this time period and should be among those that take the first cuts in these areas.”

A survey of 4,727 students found OU’s community is divided concerning their attitudes about returning to campus. Thirty-two percent said they can’t wait, 31 percent said they feel uneasy but are mostly excited, 12 percent said they have some concerns they want addressed, 26 percent are uncomfortable with returning to campus and 1 percent do not plan to return to OU. 

OU President Joseph Harroz said what OU does at its core is change lives, which is why administrators have called for in-person classes. 

“We want to provide a predominantly in-person experience because what we do matters,” Harroz said. “… Is there a point which we would have to go fully online? The answer is, of course, there could be. We know it’s a possibility, but we’re trying to avoid that.” 

Harroz said the university’s past budget was almost entirely funded by the state’s general education budget. During the pandemic, Harroz said state education funding has experienced cuts, the most recent being a cut of 3.95 percent from Oklahoma’s legislature. 

Senior Associate Vice President of Human Resources Angela Church said university employees who currently have telecommuting arrangements within their department can continue working remotely. She said there are circumstances, based on operational and business needs, which have required OU to ask some employees to return to campus. 

Irvine announced July 24 that OU approved 97 percent of OU faculty and staff’s flexibility requests. Denied requests were experienced in a category of people separate from individuals with conditions putting them at a greater risk for exposure or people who live with someone who is at-risk. 

Members of OU and Norman communities protested the flexibility plan’s handling of this budget crisis during a “die-in” outside of a July 28 Board of Regents meeting. They called for the furloughing of anyone making over $100,000 per year before laying off staff members and online options for all instructors without penalty or qualifications, among other demands. 

Church said extenuating circumstances will always be considered, but at the end of the day, OU has to meet the needs of its campus. 

“We’re returning to campus, so I expect a number of people to come back on Monday,” Church said. “I want to just underscore the importance that every employee that will be coming back to campus is required to fill out the screening and reporting tool … (before) they’re cleared to return to work.” 

Church said any notifications for an employee who tests positive for COVID-19 will go to Goddard Health Services. She said other employees may be notified in their offices, but the COVID-19 positive employee’s name will not be released. 

OU’s Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler also spoke about the factors OU’s community will need to consider as they enter into the fall semester. He specifically outlined the iceberg effect, which refers to the multitude of individuals “below the surface” who are contagious but appear to be perfectly healthy. 

Bratzler said it is important to recognize that asymptomatic carriers exist, and most of Oklahoma’s population remains susceptible — considering there is no vaccine or medications that have been proven to prevent the virus. 

"I don't care if you are going to Walmart, church or you're teaching on campus — you have to assume any person you encounter could be infected,” Bratzler said. “… 40 percent of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic … Just because someone looks healthy doesn't mean they aren't infected.”

Amid all of the fear surrounding the virus, Dean of Students and Vice President of Student Affairs David Surratt said he found an instance of hope for the fall semester through a survey concerning the masking attitudes of over 6,000 OU students. The survey found that 73.5 percent of students always or often wear a mask in public, which he said is almost 10 percent higher than the national average

Surratt said OU has instituted a masking requirement alongside preventative measures like Masking Mentors to enforce it, and he is hopeful university policies, alongside Norman’s mandatory mask ordinance, will influence OU’s community to wear a mask whenever possible. 

“(Students) see a high value in masking and recognize that it is effective in stopping the spread of the virus for both freshmen who are coming in and for all students,” Surratt said. “… I think that our students will hear (our) message and … they will (wear masks) for other people.” 

Harroz said he asked retired history professor David Levy about how the historical context of this pandemic fits into the 130-year history of OU, expecting that the university had experienced similar obstacles in the past. Levy replied this virus is novel in every sense, which Harroz said put the uniqueness of these times in perspective. 

Going forward, Harroz said he wants concrete answers and realizes others do too, which is why he is working with OU’s administration to address the priorities of every member of OU’s community in the fall semester. 

“These are very unusual times … (but) we’ll find a way to get through all of it,” Harroz said. “We know it’s finite in duration, (but) we just don’t know how long it’s going to last. … That’s part of the difficulty with any crisis — there’s always anxiety, and there’s especially anxiety here because of the tremendous health impact that can take place. … We all want concrete answers … (and although) information varies from day to day … safety is our first priority.”

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