OU Campus

University of Oklahoma students walk across campus Friday. Big 12 universities across the nation, including OU, are struggling to issue mask and vaccination mandates due to state laws and executive orders that block the universities from instituting them.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that West Virginia University is currently requiring masking indoors on campus. The Transcript regrets the error.

NORMAN — Even outside of Oklahoma, Big 12 universities are citing state laws and governors’ executive orders as roadblocks to mandating masks, vaccinations and contact tracing, a review of university policies shows.

Public Big 12 universities in Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Iowa and West Virginia have varying levels of COVID-19 precautions in place this semester as the delta variant continues to rage across the country.

Three Big 12 universities are currently requiring masking with an enforcement system; most “encourage” or “expect” on-campus masking without enforcement mechanisms.

OU required on-campus masking in the 2020-21 school year but says this year that Senate Bill 658 and Executive Order 2021-16 have stopped it from mandating masks or vaccinations for students, faculty and staff.

Frustrations with OU COVID protocols have come into the public sphere this week as faculty, staff and students demonstrated at a Board of Regents meeting, rallied in front of Evans Hall and participated in an organized walkout how and when they could to ask for stronger policies.

Action organizers, who penned an open letter to the administration, have pointed out that other universities throughout the nation are requiring masking on campus.

In its conference and in the region, OU’s COVID protocols mostly match those of other public universities, though some institutions have gone farther and implemented stronger measures in some areas.

Across the board, however, schools point to governmental restrictions as reasons for holding back on certain mandates or programs.

Masks

When it comes to on-campus masking, OU’s guidance appears par for the course with most peer universities — except those in Kansas and West Virginia.

Many regional universities have similar guidance on masks, “strongly encouraging” or “strongly recommending” face coverings rather than requiring or mandating them.

The University of Texas, like OU, cites state government action as a barrier to a mandate.

UT says that Executive Order GA-38 — an action from Gov. Greg Abbott dictating that “no governmental entity … and no governmental official may require any person to wear a face covering or to mandate that another person wear a face covering” — stops it from requiring masks on campus. Instead, masks are “strongly recommended” at UT for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and West Virginia University are the only public Big 12 universities to explicitly require masking; KSU outlines enforcement measures — from administrative disciplinary action for unmasked employees, to students being denied classroom entry if they’re not masking — that back up its policy.

KSU’s site says the requirement is temporary, and that it “will be rescinded for each campus when the host county is no longer in high or substantial transmission status,” according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Riley County, where KSU’s main campus is located, currently has “high” community transmission, according to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker.

KSU isn’t the only one — in fact, every single Big 12 university, public or private, is located in a county currently classified as high transmission. The CDC recommends that at this transmission level, everyone in the county should be masking in public, indoor settings.

The only settings where OU and other universities require masks are on university transportation or in a university healthcare setting.

Meanwhile, like OU and UT, Oklahoma State University, Texas Tech University and Iowa State University are all expecting or encouraging masks. Iowa State encourages masking, but doesn’t let instructors offer incentives for student masking or arrange their classrooms based on masking or vaccination status.

Vaccines

Because Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have all passed laws or handed down orders that stop public universities from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine passports, most public Big 12 universities, like OU, are instead offering incentive programs.

In Iowa, the Board of Regents decided this summer that vaccinations will not be required at any of the three universities it governs, including Iowa State. Iowa State is still providing free vaccines to students and employees, but doesn’t offer an incentive program.

OU opened its student vaccination incentive offering in August, and rolled out a faculty/staff incentive program earlier this month. Similarly, UT, Texas Tech, Kansas and Kansas State all offer student and employee incentives for those who show proof of vaccination.

Oklahoma State is offering incentives to students via its “Poke-a-thon” program, but doesn’t appear to have faculty and staff incentives currently.

Contact tracing

While contact tracing varies widely between universities and states right now, OU appears to fall behind many of its peers in tracing efforts.

In Kansas, House Bill 2016 requires participation in contact tracing be voluntary, meaning Kansas State and the University of Kansas aren’t mandating contact tracing for infected community members (at KSU, participation is “strongly encouraged”).

Still, KSU has a partnership between the local health department and the Manhattan campus’ medical center, where graduate students help with contact tracing for students who live on campus and for student athletes.

With no contact tracing restrictions on the University of Texas, UT outlines extensive contact tracing protocol on its site; the university conducts contact tracing via an agreement between its medical school and Austin Public Health. Participation is voluntary, but the university has “a robust team of experienced contact tracers” to notify and assist close contacts in cases.

In Oklahoma, where laws restricting public entities haven’t touched contact tracing, OU has a system that relies on individuals to find and follow guidelines on their own. The OU Daily reports the university is depending mostly on an “honor system” for recording cases and completing contact tracing this semester.

The university has a “Healthy Together” app that lets community members self-screen for symptoms and report; the app also alerts individuals when they’re cleared to return to campus. OU has no designated contact tracing team; the university’s site notes that OU ”will cooperate with the appropriate health department in its contact tracing efforts.”

The only Big 12 universities comparable to OU in contact tracing are Kansas — which has an organizational flowchart to direct individuals’ decisions in the event of an exposure — and Iowa State, which relies completely on individuals to handle the implications of a positive test. Iowa State is no longer doing contact tracing, its site says.

“If you test positive or need to quarantine according to CDC guidance, it’s your responsibility to contact your instructor or supervisor and make arrangements for class or work,” the university’s website reads. “Faculty will not be notified of students in their class who test positive.”

Emma Keith is the editor of The Transcript, where she covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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Emma Keith is the editor of The Norman Transcript, where she also covers Norman Public Schools and The University of Oklahoma. She is a 2019 OU graduate.