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OU English Department finds lower masking rates in lower-level courses, decries lack of COVID-19 mitigation policies

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The OU English Department is housed inside Cate Center 2. 

The First-Year Composition Program of the OU English Department conducted a study on masking across first-year courses, finding higher masking rates in 2000-level and above classes taught by tenure-line faculty than in 1000-level classes last week.

The study was conducted across 124 in-person sections of ENGL 1113, 1213 and 1913, according to a release from the OU English Department. In the second week of the semester, students in only 27 sections were fully masked following instructors' requests.

In 50 sections, half or fewer students wore masks, and in 37 sections, five or fewer students out of 19 wore masks. In one section of ENGL 1113, the only person masked was the instructor. 

Tenure-line faculty teaching 2000-level classes and above reported that 100 percent of their students agreed to mask. 

Over 70 percent of courses studied have half or less of the students masking when the instructor requests mask use, according to the study. In one section of ENGL-1113, the instructor was reportedly the only person masked.

Social distancing from unmasked students is “impossible,” due to small, cramped classrooms, according to the release. OU currently has no official social distancing policies for a classroom setting.

Many instructors of first-year classes without complete mask compliance are not receiving accommodation for their medical conditions this semester despite receiving it last academic year, according to the release. Some of these instructors also have children who are repeatedly being exposed to COVID-19 or at-risk household members.

Graduate teaching assistants who are instructing some of the less-masked sections receive stipends that place them below the poverty line, according to the release.

OU’s current mask policy requires that masks are worn only during a two-week quarantine period if a student in a class tests positive for COVID-19. OU Senior Vice President and Provost André-Denis Wright said in an OU Faculty Senate meeting that administrators have no plans to institute a mask mandate.

A university spokesperson wrote in an email that the university expects “all faculty, staff and students to mask indoors,” especially in close-proximity areas such as classrooms.

“The university continues to be nimble in its response, and plans will be adjusted as necessary based on the status of the pandemic and within the confines of the law,” the spokesperson wrote.

The First-Year Composition Program study suggests that the current policy of “encouraging” or “expecting” masking is failing the most vulnerable and least compensated instructors. Professors across the university are also saying that the current masking policy is not strong enough.

English Department Chair and Director of the First-Year Composition Program Roxanne Mountford provided an incentive of $50 fellowships for books, tuition or fees for first-year courses, with the most days of 100 percent masking throughout the semester. There is no evidence of the incentive encouraging students to mask up, according to the release.

Mountford admits there might have been effective ways for administrators to persuade students to voluntarily mask, but OU’s lack of signage and “laissez-faire environment” have prevented the university community from returning to normal.

Mountford said she encourages OU’s leadership to allow instructors to create their own mask policy in their classroom or to take non-compliant sections online through the end of the semester. She also said she approves of a recently passed SGA Undergraduate Student Congress resolution encouraging the university to offer instructors hazard pay, among other demands.

“Many feel abandoned by OU leadership, and, as a result, morale is low,” Mountford said.

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