OU Senior Vice President and Provost André-Denis Wright said in a Monday OU Faculty Senate meeting administrators have no official plans to enact a campus-wide mask mandate, as doing so would require allowing for exemptions without disciplinary action.
Last week, OU President Joseph Harroz said the administration was meeting to evaluate a university-wide mask mandate following a temporary injunction against Senate Bill 658 issued by Oklahoma District Court Judge Natalie Mai on Sept. 1. The injunction will remain until a permanent hearing by a permanent injunction court hearing takes place or a higher court takes action
OU currently interprets Oklahoma Senate Bill 658 and Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Executive Order 2021-16 as barring it from requiring masks and vaccines. University policy “strongly encourages” masking indoors and in high-density settings.
Wright said Monday the university is trying to “stay within the boundaries of law” and maintain student retention through their COVID-19 policies. If the university were to enact a mask mandate, students and faculty currently refusing to mask would be able to opt out of the requirement.
In response, associate history professor Robert Lifset asked Wright if he was assuming those individuals would seek an exemption.
“Are you assuming they wouldn’t?” Wright said. “If I were a student, I would.”
Wright said there is a “strong likelihood” students who aren’t wearing masks are vaccinated.
In an August survey by Morning Consult and Politico, 39 percent of vaccinated respondents said they’ll always wear a mask in indoor public spaces, 24 percent said they’ll wear one most of the time and 20 percent said they’ll sometimes wear a mask. By comparison, 35 percent of respondents not fully vaccinated said they’ll always wear a mask in indoor public spaces, 13 percent said they would most of the time and 15 percent said they would sometimes.
On Aug. 20, Wright announced if a student in a class tests positive for COVID-19, that class can continue to meet in person but must wear masks for two weeks — the university’s only mask requirement.
The current policy allows professors to ask students to leave the classroom if they refuse to wear a mask within the two-week quarantining period. If they refuse, the professor may notify Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students David Surratt.
Harroz taught in the university’s first class to implement its recent masking policy on Sept. 2 — a Tuesday and Thursday American Federal Government course in Dale Hall with 196 registered students. Multiple students remained unmasked despite the policy and Harroz’s offer of free masks at the front of the classroom.
Wright said since administrators must allow exemptions if they require masks campus-wide, professors will no longer be able to report students to Surratt.
The university is “dependent” on students using the Healthy Together App — a COVID-19 screening and reporting tool — and “being honest” about potential COVID-19 infection in order to require masks in classrooms, Wright said.
The administration is having a “hard time” convincing students to use the app, according to Wright. He said if a student isn’t using the app, an email to their professors confirming a positive test result will suffice.
Daily Healthy Together passport uses have exceeded 1,000 only twice since the two-week mask requirement policy was implemented, according to the OU COVID-19 Dashboard.
“If they're not going to use it, but still be honest and let people know that they're positive, I can live with that,” Wright said. “My biggest worry is (students) not using the app and not telling anyone that they’re positive and still continuing to go to class and do other social activities.”
During the meeting, Wright announced the provost’s office will send a survey to faculty next week with questions regarding their vaccination status and an estimate of how many students in their classrooms are masking.
"It's not a perfect world," Wright said. "We're trying our best and hoping that this works and it gets us all through the semester safely."