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Our view: 'What are we going to do when people start dying?'

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“What are we going to do when people start dying?”

That’s the question our editorial board has been confronting over the past few days. If we’re going to write obituaries — if so for whom, and when will we write them. It’s not if people start dying — it’s when

One case of COVID-19 has already been confirmed in the residential halls, where students were tested prior to move-in and 62 were confirmed as positives. When classes moved online March 18, there were just four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cleveland County and 29 across the state.

The university has made adjustments — mask mandates, new testing options, sanitization devices, quarantine and isolation areas just to name a few. They know people will get sick; they’ve prepared for it and they have chosen to allow it, despite the potentially fatal cost.

In the past few weeks, the university has put out messaging welcoming students back to campus and explaining the protocols that have been put in place. Many of these went out the window at one of the first university-held events — the Class of 2024 Welcome. Students gathered en masse to attend this event, and although protocols were observed during the welcome itself, groups were clearly observed not social distancing on their way into the stadium. 

Although ultimately the decision relies on students themselves to abide by COVID-19 protocols, university administrators are the ones who decided we should all come back to campus and go to school face-to-face, or rather, mask-to-mask. We know they’ve seen what the South Oval looks like at peak times and what Campus Corner has looked like over the past few weeks. 

The university’s administration knows the student body will not abide by the rules 100 percent of the time — that’s about as infantile as assuming students don’t drink underage. It’s already identified reports of large, ‘unsanctioned’ gatherings that led to panhellenic recruitment moving online. They can’t control these off-campus behaviors, and even people who have been completely careful with these protocols have still gotten sick. 

We were told that if the university was to go fully online, it would cause an approximately $150 million shortfall that could only be made up by laying off staff members. University protesters demanded tiered cuts from OU’s highest earners in lieu of staff layoffs. When The Daily requested the numbers as to why that wouldn’t work, we were instead given a statement that the university would “continue to remain vigilant, carefully reviewing all options and making informed decisions based upon the evolving circumstances," and that cutting "executive officers’ and deans’" salaries wouldn't be enough — although protesters demanded tiered cuts for all those earning over $100,000. 

While we understand the financial hit the university must consider, our staff deserve better. To lay off workers during a pandemic in a country in which health care is most often tied to employment is a moral decision. When OU has to decide between money and lives, we would hope it chooses the latter. However, given the university’s insistence on moving forward with in-person classes, choosing lives over money does not seem to be a precedent OU is willing to set.

At least we know missing school due to a highly transmissible disease that has killed over 806,000 people won’t affect our GPAs. But what about the student who lives off campus with her 70-year-old diabetic grandma? What about the sophomore who doesn’t know they have a heart condition? What about the students who simply cannot afford to get sick?

It may not be ‘healthy, strong college students’ who could carry the virus without so much as a sniffle — but to the students with immune system weaknesses who share the campus with you, to the 60-year-old professors who share the classroom with you, disregard for the seriousness of this virus can prove fatal, without accounting for whom they may spread it to in turn.

When — and we do mean when — the university campus closes and goes to all-online instruction, students will disperse back to their homes and families after being on a campus of over 30,000 people, potentially introducing those communities across the country and the world to infection. 

What of the mental health toll that kind of burden demands of our students? 

Will a student be able to pay tens of thousands of dollars if they or their loved ones are hospitalized? Will a student ever truly get over the grief of infecting a professor, roommate or loved one — and potentially causing their death? This is the impossible reality students must now face because OU has placed an arbitrary priority on mask-to-mask instruction for the few weeks we’ll ultimately be on campus.

The university administration had to confront these questions themselves — and despite that, we’re still coming back. Whatever happens now is ultimately because of their actions; even though inaction across the nation got us to this stage of the pandemic, they were the ones who chose to bring back thousands of students en-masse when it’s not even safe to have more than 40 people in a classroom.

We wanted to come back. But not like this. And it’s just going to get worse — in fact, it probably already has. 

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