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OU faculty, students express worry, hopefulness ahead of university plan to return to in-person courses at full capacity

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Empty campus in front of the Oklahoma Memorial Union on the first day of online classes after Spring Break on March 23.

OU faculty and students shared their concerns and readiness to return to campus following an announcement sent by OU President Joseph Harroz discussing the university’s plans for the fall 2021 semester. 

On March 2, OU President Joseph Harroz announced the university’s plans to resume in-person courses at full capacity for the fall 2021 semester. According to the announcement, the decision is being guided by advice from OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler and was made possible by OU’s efforts and widespread vaccine distribution.

According to OU’s COVID-19 dashboard, 5,705 vaccination series have been completed by OU Health Services at this time. 

According to the announcement, the university will still monitor COVID-19 infections in Oklahoma, “ensuring that all appropriate health and safety measures are in place.”

We know that this will be an adjustment for many, and many of our return efforts remain a work in progress,” Harroz said in the announcement. “We will communicate additional updates for our summer and fall operations in the coming weeks and months.”

OU anthropology professor Tassie Hirschfeld said she has yet to hear from the university regarding further information about the fall semester. 

Hirschfeld said she has rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, and finds both benefits and drawbacks in returning to in-person courses.

“The isolation of being home all the time is one source of stress, but the risks of being around people is another. I’m very comfortable and familiar with the isolation stress, and so the people stress will be something different that I’ll sort of have to figure out as I go,” Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld feels uncomfortable being indoors with others who are unmasked, she said. If there are no new COVID cases on campus or in Oklahoma after the fall semester begins, though, she said she would feel comfortable going maskless in the future. 

OU communication freshman Claire Grace said she is unconcerned about campus returning to full capacity if masking requirements are enforced in classrooms. 

Grace has health concerns including asthma, a vitamin D deficiency and a blood type that is suspected to be highly susceptible to COVID-19. She decided to live at Cross apartments during her freshman year, rather than the traditional dorms.

“I do feel comfortable with being in-person, but as long as ... we stay vigilant with masking and with social distancing. Without that, I would not feel comfortable,” Grace said. 

Even if campus does not require masks, Grace said she will be wearing one. 

Kesha Keith, OU director of media relations, wrote in an email there has yet to be a decision made on whether a campus-wide mask mandate will be upheld for the fall semester.

“The university will seek counsel of our health professionals, including (Dr. Bratzler), and consider current CDC guidelines to determine safety protocols for the fall,” Keith said in the email. 

OU meteorology junior April Allen said she believes the university made the announcement too soon, considering the existence of multiple virus variants

Allen, who is registered with the OU Accessibility and Disability Resource Center and works in a pharmacy retail store that performs COVID-19 testing, said she is currently enrolled in online classes to reduce exposure she may bring to campus or work.

Allen said she also feels concerned for those who are immunocompromised or need accommodations, and wonders if Zoom will still be provided to those students. 

“I would love to see a more systematic approach from the university. … Just offer more options to everyone, regardless of whether they’re registered with the (ADRC). Not everyone can get the documentation — some people can’t even afford health insurance.”

Keith wrote in the email students who want a fully online or remote schedule will need to discuss it with their advisors.

“For fall 2021, there will be more online and remote courses available than were available prior to COVID-19,” Keith said in the email. “The availability of an all-online or remote schedule will be dependent on the student's required courses and available online and remote courses in their area of study.”

Allen said she feels masking enforcement has been “lacking” at OU, and she is scared that many people won’t be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

OU professor of history and women’s and gender studies Sandie Holguin said she would like to see vaccinations being enforced at a university level, where students, faculty and staff are required to provide documentation of their vaccination. 

According to an Apr. 11 NPR article, some universities are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for the 2021 fall semester, including Rutgers and Duke universities.

OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler said in a previous interview it’s unlikely OU will require COVID-19 vaccinations. It is possible some university-sponsored activities, such as international studies, will require vaccination.

Joyce Coleman, OU Rudolph C. Bambas professor of medieval English literature and culture and director of the Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, said she feels comfortable with campus plans for the fall and thinks the campus vaccination program has been good. 

If given the option to teach online, Coleman said she would rather teach in person. 

“You really miss the connection,” Coleman said. “The atmosphere of people together, trying to learn, trying to discuss (and) understand things.”

For instructors who do wish to teach online for the upcoming session and semester, Keith wrote faculty can request an online or remote format for the summer and fall with their chairs and directors. 

“The goal is to offer most classes in an in-person or blended format,” Keith said in the email. 

According to Harroz’s announcement, the university is remaining hopeful and optimistic about the fall 2021 semester but is still encouraging everyone to continue taking proper COVID-19 precautions.

“To help us keep making strides forward, we urge you to continue practicing healthy behaviors, including masking, frequent hand washing, and social distancing; to get vaccinated when you are eligible; and to keep supporting one another through this challenge,” Harroz said in the announcement.

Hirschfeld is also encouraging the OU community to stay vigilant during this time. 

“So far, at least the students I’ve interacted with, are being very conscientious and very thoughtful about protecting themselves and protecting each other, and I just hope that that goes forward because I don’t think we’re quite out of the woods yet,” Hirschfeld said. “So, I just want to encourage everybody to hang on. I know everybody’s tired of it, but I just encourage people to hang on a little longer and hopefully we can really start to put this behind us.”

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