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'We also stand in a time of great light': OU President Joseph Harroz outlines spring 2021 semester in staff senate meeting

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Joe Harroz at staff town hall (copy)

OU President Joseph Harroz at staff town hall July 30.

In a Wednesday afternoon OU Staff Senate meeting, President Joseph Harroz discussed the vaccination of OU faculty and staff, the chance of online classes and testing of on-campus students ahead of the spring 2021 semester.

Harroz said starting the spring semester a week late rather than having a spring break gives the university “the best chance to get through next semester.” He also said the university doesn’t anticipate an all-online transition.

“We know that there are more difficult days ahead, but at this time, that is not something we’re contemplating,” Harroz said. “Now, it is a topic that you always have to have in the back of your mind, but that is not the current plan.” 

Harroz also said there are no current reports of COVID-19 transmission within the classrooms on campus. 

“If you aren’t in your home … one of the very safest places you can be is our classrooms,” Harroz said. “We still don’t know of any transmissions (that have) taken place there.” 

In an interview with The Daily, OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said the classrooms are “intended to be set up in such a way — with six feet between desks and everyone in the room wearing a mask — that students in the room would not be considered a close contact of any student who could potentially be positive by the CDC’s definition.”

“Because we set up the classrooms with six feet of physical distancing and everybody's required to be wearing a mask, those two interventions in general make it so that you don't even meet the criteria to be a direct contact,” Bratzler said. “But we just simply haven't seen people report that as a likely source of infection. And as I tell the doctors on this campus, somewhere between 40 to 45 percent of people who get COVID-19 never have a single symptom. Rather, they look perfectly normal, but could be infectious, and that’s why we insisted on a masking policy.”

According to Harroz, students will receive the Vault Health saliva-based PCR COVID-19 testing before they can move into the dorms, as they did before the Fall 2020 semester. Harroz said free COVID-19 testing will still be available for students, faculty and staff on campus. 

“Partnership continues with (OU Health) to offer free testing for students in the residence halls,” Harroz said. “We are working closely with IMMY Labs here in Norman for additional testing in the Jenkins Garage. And a profound thanks to Goddard health care workers. They’re incredible and have been there for us.”

During the meeting, Harroz cited a New York Times article as a testament of the efforts by the OU and Norman community to control the spread of the virus.

“They indicated that the counties where major universities are in across the country are generally experiencing two-times as many COVID-19 deaths as the other counties in those states,” Harroz said. “For Norman and Cleveland County, is it at 50% of the rate of the state as a whole in terms on COVID-19 deaths.”

On July 7, the Norman City Council voted in favor of a mask ordinance. On Nov. 10, they voted to extend the ordinance as it was set to expire Nov. 30. According to Bratzler, “communities with mask mandates have seen a reduction of about 25 percent in the risk of increasing cases in Oklahoma.” 

Harroz said the OU Health received the COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday. He said he will be receiving the vaccine.

“I encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” Harroz said. “Whenever it’s my turn in line, I certainly will.”

Harroz said the position the university is at right now is “remarkable” and thanked the faculty and staff for their role within the university. 

“I know you’ve heard me say it in a bunch of different settings, but it could be a very different situation for the university,” Harroz said. “This tragedy has affected all of us. The pandemic has impacted every one of our lives —  and many profoundly — but there is no way to express the gratitude I have for how hard everyone’s worked to preserve this university.”

Harroz said the “best possible outcome” in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic is no university-wide furloughs or layoffs, which Harroz said the university still has no plans for.

“We still do not have COVID-19 related furloughs or layoffs on the agenda,” Harroz said “Those are not something that are being contemplated right now, period.” 

Harroz said OU employees making less than the minimum salary band will receive a pay-increase in January. According to Harroz, there are at least 87 employees on the Norman campus in need of the proposed pay increase and 159 at the OU Health and Sciences Center that will receive the proposed pay increase. 

Harroz said the university will “grow and continue to become better.” Despite the time of “deep darkness,” Harroz said, “we also stand in a time of great light.” 

“As we see the vaccine, while we don’t know exactly where that light is, the light is shining, and we’re going to get there,” Harroz said. “We also have a strategic plan to continue in a season of light. It is a bright light about where we can go as an institution. We have gotten to this point in a pandemic.” 

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