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OU administrators acknowledge flaws, field questions on COVID-19 protocols at virtual town hall

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Joe Harroz at staff town hall (copy)

OU President Joseph Harroz at a staff town hall July 30.

OU President Joseph Harroz and other university administrators acknowledged some flaws in the university’s plan at the “State of the University” town hall in a two-hour Zoom meeting Wednesday afternoon.

Harroz, along with Dean of Students David Surratt and interim Senior Vice President and Provost Jill Irvine, were questioned about the university’s response to COVID-19, the lack of masking and distancing precautions at Saturday’s season-opening OU football game and administrators’ ability to possibly suspend students or organizations who ignore precautions.

Among these concerns was the way greek organizations have dealt with COVID-19 and the lack of adherence to COVID-19 safety measures within the student section at the football game Sept. 12.

“There is no question the Students’ Rights and Responsibilities code section of the student code can be used,” Harroz said. “If students are not in compliance, organizations are not in compliance, we have to be ready to take those actions.”

Harroz said administrators originally discussed suspending students who don’t adhere to policies. However, Surratt said OU Student Affairs should try to deal with organizations that fail to implement protocols in a “teaching way.”

“What we were working on was how to actually influence their behaviors in different ways,” Surratt said. “When I’ve met with students especially in the greek life community, (I’ve been) like, ‘Look, I’m not OSU, I’m not going to paint a (COVID-19) house for one of our greek facilities. I'm not Syracuse and have (not) chastised an entire population of students for the behaviors of a few.’ We actually looked at this from a very measured approach.”

Harroz said the university’s COVID-19 dashboard has flaws in expressing how many cases are on campus due to outside testing. Currently, the dashboard’s data only accounts for tests conducted by Goddard Health Services and OU Medicine’s results from testing students living in on-campus housing.

“The dashboard that we put up with daily information reflects all of the numbers for the individuals who tested (at) Goddard,” Harroz said. “We want everyone to notify Goddard, even if they don't test at Goddard. But right now we don't have a way to compel them to issue those reports. So every number that we have is reported, and we were working with the Cleveland County Health Department, but we don't have those numbers ourselves.”

Harroz also said there have been no students hospitalized due to COVID-19. However, Kesha Keith, OU's director of media relations, said in a Monday statement to The Daily that “at this time, the university does not track student hospitalization records."

Surratt also talked about the change in protocols in isolation housing since an OU Daily article was published discussing a reporter’s experience in the isolation housing — which included an insect-filled room and a lack of health check-ups or adequate communication from the university.

“During the first week, when we are trying to do something really hard for the very first time, you are testing theories and protocols, and that was the protocol at that time,” Surratt said. “Since then, we no longer have that quarantine protocol in place at all. So students are actually able to quarantine in place.”

Surratt elaborated on the new protocols for students who might have been exposed but haven’t tested positive in an email to The Daily.

“Regarding asymptomatic quarantined on-campus students who have not tested positive for COVID-19, the university restricts movement of these students, for 14 days, unless it is for an essential need,” Surratt said in the email. “Students instructed to quarantine are no longer moved to isolation and quarantine generally in their permanent room assignment. … Residential Life staff are available and checking in on community members, and an on-call number is provided for students to contact staff 24 hours a day on weekdays and weekends.”

Harroz also acknowledged some issues with the line of communication, issues which overwhelmed offices with COVID-19 tasks and precautions. 

“Not everything has been perfect. And we're aware of that,” Harroz said. “We know that the flow of information has not worked well. Some of the offices were completely overwhelmed with how they should handle their tasks. … This is a very real problem that has emerged in the classroom.”

Goddard Health Services has allegedly had issues contacting potentially infected students within the time frame their screening tool promises. Dr. Dale Bratzler, OU’s chief COVID officer, said in a Wednesday interview with The Daily campus resources were “quickly overwhelmed” by the volume of calls, which led to some students not being contacted for check-ups on their symptoms within 24 hours.

Surratt said measures need to be pushed to mitigate risk on campus, especially during a time where there is a lack of leadership outside campus.

“The reality (is that) community spread has been here,” Surratt said. “In a world where there is no federal leadership, no statewide leadership, frankly no local leadership outside of the fact that we have a mayor that is willing to take some hard stances on a few hard issues — when it comes to the virus this has been widespread.”

Harroz also said they are currently discussing ways to deliver classes in the spring.

“I've been speaking with the provost. (Irvine) and her team are working really hard on ‘How do we address classes for next semester?’” Harroz said. “One of the criteria we use is ‘Do we grant more flexibility than this past semester?’ And the goal is to provide even more flexibility than was provided this semester.”

Harroz was also asked about the new health care policy that the staff and faculty senates have publicly opposed.

“One of the areas that continues to increase relentlessly is the cost of health care and benefits. It is on pace every year for 10 percent plus increase every year.” Harroz said. “Now twice the faculty senate (executive) and I have listened to and felt the pain that attaches to this, because I'm moving away from six tiers that ends up creating a disproportionate burden on those that are lowest paid, and there's no question about that."

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