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OU employees resign, move families out of state due to health risks from lack of masking, social distancing mandates

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An OU flag in front of the Bizzell Memorial Library.

As COVID-19 rates spike in Oklahoma, some OU faculty and staff have decided to send their families out of the state or leave their jobs altogether due to limited policies at OU and in Oklahoma.

Currently, OU follows the regulations set by Gov. Kevin Stitt's Executive Order 2021-16  and Senate Bill 658. Stitt's Executive Order prevents state agencies from mandating masks or requiring a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of admittance to any public building, and SB 658 does not allow certain entities, primarily education institutions, to mandate vaccines or enforce mask mandates for unvaccinated students against COVID-19.

Will Kurlinkus, an OU professor of rhetoric, digital media and technical communication, has lived in Norman for seven years and is now opting to stay and teach at OU in Oklahoma while he sends his wife and son to live with family in Illinois. He described Oklahoma as a "COVID hellhole."

"I was super excited and relieved to get back into the classroom. But then the delta variant hit a couple of weeks before classes started, and we weren't allowed to go in and say, ‘Hey, COVID is worse now than it was last year. I don't want to teach in person,’" Kurlinkus said. "That's the thing—it's worse, and we're not masking, we're not social distancing anymore in classrooms, there's no more free testing on campus, and I haven't heard anything about air filtration or quarantine dorms. Why did we abandon these things?"

Kurlinkus said he has become increasingly frustrated with the university's inconsistent COVID-19 policies, which includes requiring masks for two weeks in classes where students test positive but lacks a general mask mandate.

"OU is pretending to be hamstrung by the governor, but OU's own law professors have argued the law is poorly written and can be resisted. OU has also stopped free testing, social distancing, reduced online learning—all of which aren't banned (by SB 658)," Kurlinkus said. 

Kurlinkus said his final straw came when area hospitals became full during a recent COVID-19 surge.

"Knowing that if my 2-year-old son got injured or ill from anything, even something not COVID related, there's a risk he won't be cared for immediately, or we'll have to drive to another state," Kurlinkus said. “This is all in contrast to my parents’ town in Illinois where masks have been mandated and where state workers, teachers, and college students are required to mask and be vaccinated.”

According to the National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, hospitals currently see the largest number of children falling ill since the pandemic began. Despite Pfizer's recent FDA approval, vaccines for children under 12 are still not likely to be approved until 2022.

Kurlinkus said he feels that he's being asked to put his health at risk, as well as his two-year-old son's. He is not alone in this sentiment, as Andy Vaughn, a visual designer with The OU Office of Digital Learning, recently quit his job after feeling he was putting the health of himself and his family at risk.

"My reason for resigning my staff position earlier than I wanted to by a few years is due to having a 4-month-old and a 5-year-old, both of whom are obviously unvaccinated," Vaughn said. "With the threat of COVID-19 rampant again in this state and city, I felt that I had no choice but to resign after my requests to continue working from home were denied."

A university spokesperson said in an email instructors are not permitted to change the mode of delivery of their course. Courses must be taught in the mode of delivery they were scheduled. 

Any changes to the mode of delivery for a course will be determined by an instructor’s respective dean, with input from the provost as needed, according to the email. If an instructor has a health concern that would qualify them for ADA accommodation, they must complete the ADA accommodation process.

Vaughn feels that faculty should not have to explain their entire health history or have children to convince someone to wear a mask.

"Professors and students should be given the option for online learning," Vaughn said. "I think that the only way that OU faculty/staff will be more comfortable is when/if a mask and vaccine mandate is made. We could also go back to online learning like we pivoted to last year. The tools are there, but OU chooses not to."

OU's Norman campus remains in Phase IV of the Return to Campus Plan. Phase IV includes remote work phase-out, eliminating social distancing and discouragement of temperature checks.

"OU is putting every employee, staff, faculty, or otherwise in a terrible position," Vaughn said. "In conclusion, I have love for my department and colleagues, but I've no choice. I cannot put my children at risk because an entitled 20-year-old won't get a vaccine or wear a mask."

Kurlinkus said he feels the university has betrayed both him and his family.

"You know, OU is always sending emails talking about how we're all a big family—I'm calling on President Harroz to prove it or stop using that language. You don't endanger your family like this." Kurlinkus said.

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