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OU professors criticize lack of 'uniform rule' mandating masking in classrooms amid rising health concerns

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OU Mask w/ black background (copy)

Display of OU mask

As many OU professors have strongly encouraged masks in their classrooms in accordance with university policy, some have reported receiving varied reactions from their students.

The university has cited SB 658 and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Executive Order 2021-16 as preventing it from implementing mask and vaccination mandates on campus, though before the fall semester, several law experts said its interpretation of those laws is questionable.

A university spokesperson wrote in an email that the university “strongly encourages” indoor masking and that instructors are advised to “strongly encourage” masking within the classroom. Students choosing not to mask may be asked to sit away from the instructor or others expressing health concerns.

Several OU professors said this policy has not been strong enough to encourage mask use in classrooms.

“When the institution does not have a uniform rule that says, 'In order to protect the public health and safety of everybody, you have to do this," you're going to get a continuum from people that comply with it, and people that are very concerned, and everything in between,” Michael Givel, a political science professor and president of the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said. “That's just the way reality is, and that's what's happening with the student body.”

Kermyt Anderson, an associate professor of biological anthropology, said although most students are masking in his classroom, he still has concerns about the number of classes with students who are not.

“I know in the smaller or in the lower division classes, I've heard that it's high rates of not masking,” Anderson said. “And that’s worrisome because people think that they're invulnerable, but … they're going to spread it. With delta, you can spread it to (four) people before you know that you're sick, so that's really worrisome.

“I'm really worried about my colleagues and friends and students who go out, who are protected, and maybe they can't get vaccinated or haven't been vaccinated or they've got health issues, and so forth,” Anderson said. 

Lori Jervis, an OU anthropology professor, conducted a survey during the first week of classes, asking students and professors for rates of masking in their classes. Jervis wrote she received responses from 26 professors and 10 students who recorded the number of those in the class and those masking.

Survey questions asked participants to count the number of students wearing masks in their classes, and results indicate the mean rate of masking is 71 percent. The lowest rates of student masking were in 1000-level classes, according to the survey.

“​​It would be beneficial for the university to systematically collect data on masking and vaccination rates so we can detect changes over time,” Jervis wrote in an email.

Anderson said though masking rates on campus have been higher than expected, he’s disappointed with the university’s response.

“They're saying we’re strongly encouraging masks, but we're not going to provide the masks,” Anderson said. “There's no modification of the attendance policy. For the professor, there's no Zoom policy, there's nothing, it's just silence.”

Sandie Holguín, an OU history department professor, also said campus masking policies have been ineffective.

“I think they just need to absolutely require masking of every person on campus like they did last year because it's unsafe for people at this point, especially with the delta variant,” Holguín said. “It's way too contagious, and we know that it spreads through aerosols and in indoor spaces, and therefore, the fact that it is not mandatory means that people are going to get sick and die and pass on the virus to friends, children, elders in the community, and that is unconscionable.”

Holguín said although administrators believe state law prevents mask requirements, she argues there are other alternatives to promote mask use.

“I feel like OU is being politically cowardly by not doing this,” Holguín said. ”And I know they're going to say that it's against the law, but … in fact, the federal government's Department of Education requires that you have safe classrooms. (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires that you have safe labor conditions and neither of those things is happening at OU right now,” Holguín said.

A recent email from the OU Senior Vice President and Provost André-Denis Wright announced Monday that classes where a student reports a positive COVID-19 case will continue to meet in person, but masking will be mandated for two weeks. He wrote that the university is aiming for protocols “as responsive as possible” while staying “within the boundaries of the law.

Wright also wrote Vice Provost for Instruction and Student Success Mark Morvant will hold two Faculty Town Halls this week, on Aug 31 from noon to 1 p.m. and Sep. 1 from 1-2 p.m.

Faculty will also have access to KN95 masks available in limited supply at the Center for Faculty Excellence from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

“Again, please wear your mask, and if you haven’t already, and are able to do so, please get vaccinated,” Wright wrote. “Thank you for doing your part to keep us together.”

A Sunday video from OU President Joseph Harroz asked students to mask indoors, regardless of their vaccination status.

“Masking indoors, especially in classrooms and hallways is expected at OU,” Harroz said in the video.  

The video drew criticism from community members on Twitter who questioned limited messaging encouraging masks and continued lack of a general mask requirement.

Givel said stronger messages relating to the science behind the use of masks and the danger of the disease itself are needed for a safer campus environment. 

“Do not be manipulated, and do not be fooled,” Givel said. “This is a college campus, and we rely on looking at the science, and if someone gets — goodness forbid — ill, there are really significant health consequences as a result of this, even if you're moderately ill, including long term health consequences. … This is not a disease to fool around with, and I would suggest that OU might want to have a picture of some of this done very, very tastefully, of course, to reinforce this message.”

Concerned by the potential worsening of the pandemic throughout the semester, Givel, Anderson and Holguín encouraged all students, faculty and staff to mask.

“There is a responsibility. It's not just about the messaging, there's the responsibility, ultimately, to do what is, what the CDC says, is a very safe practice for universities, which is masking because some people are walking around without vaccinations,” Givel said.

news reporter

Taylor Jones is a journalism sophomore and news reporter at The Daily.

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