People walk across OU campus, Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Kyle Phillips / The Transcript)

University of Oklahoma administrators remained committed to in-person instruction in a two-hour question and answer webinar Wednesday during which they addressed inconsistencies in OU’s COVID-19 policies and looked toward next semester.

In a “State of the University” address and Q&A Wednesday, OU President Joe Harroz addressed everything from university finances and furloughs to issues with and enforcement of OU’s COVID-related policies. Harroz also took multiple questions from OU faculty members on a broad range of topics.

While OU projected that the university could lose at least $150 million if OU had pivoted entirely online before the semester began, Harroz said with OU’s current trajectory, the university is “not projecting furloughs right now related to this pandemic.”

According to Harroz, OU spent about $12.5 million at the beginning of the pandemic to avoid furloughing full-time faculty and staff, and has spent millions in the last few months on expenditures from cleaning supplies to housing and food refunds.The president did not mention or address layoffs at any point in the event.

According to Harroz, OU saw an enrollment decrease of about 2.2% in freshmen and 3% in transfer students over last year. The university’s enrollment has stayed mostly level from fall 2019 to fall 2020 — numbers from Sept. 14 show that this year, OU’s Norman campus had 25,886 on-campus students, while last year, the campus had 25,875.

While OU has recorded more than 260 COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff since the university started reporting and tracking cases Aug. 10, Harroz said Wednesday that there have been no recorded cases due to transmission in an OU classroom on any of the university’s three campuses, and there have been no known student hospitalizations. The president attributed the lack of classroom spread to OU’s masking policy, but also acknowledged that the university has seen cases among students and in university housing.

The university’s online dashboard, which displays known COVID-19 test results and quarantine numbers associated with OU, regularly goes several days without update (as of Wednesday, the dashboard was last updated Friday, Sept. 11). Harroz said the delay is partially due to the fact that test results can take a few days to come back to the university, but said that OU also has no way to compel community members to get tested at Goddard Health Clinic or report their testing results to the university.

Harroz and David Surratt, OU’s vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, also told faculty members Wednesday that there have been some lapses in the university’s COVID policies, especially when it comes to students.

“As it relates to students coming back into the classroom, not everything is perfect,” Harroz said. “We’re aware of that, and it’s being worked on right now. We know that the flow of information has not worked well — some of the offices have been completely overwhelmed with how they handle their tasks.”

While staff and student employees have been asked to have an “all clear” status before returning to campus post-quarantine or illness, the same rules have not applied to the general student body, faculty said. Some faculty have also had issues with knowing when one of their students is absent due to COVID, Harroz said.

The university has encouraged students to get tested at or at least report their testing results to Goddard Health Clinic on campus, but OU also uses an optional screening process to record student health issues, and off-campus testing options are available in Norman. Harroz said administrators are continuously looking at streamlining and correcting policy, and said that if instructors need more information about their students’ absences, they can go to the Dean of Students’ office.

“One of the things that was probably a mistake on our end was realizing that we have a screening process that is optional, as well as disclosure of any kind of information to Goddard...that makes some of the information less reliable when it comes to communication, and that’s one expectation I think we created for faculty that was the wrong one,” Surratt said.

Harroz also addressed student non-compliance with university COVID policy, noting that as OU looked toward returning to campus, he wanted to take a harsher stance on enforcement and use student and organization suspensions to handle non-compliance.

But Surratt was focused on raising awareness and education among students instead, Harroz and Surratt said. The resulting system of handling non-compliance has been a mixture of educating students and correcting behavior, and using conduct notifications and fines in areas like the residence halls to manage student behavior.

While OU students have been photographed and videoed gathering in large numbers off campus and not adhering to the masking policy at last weekend’s football game, Harroz and Surratt said they believe the system is effective, if imperfect, so far.

“There is no question — the students’ rights and responsibilities section of the Student Code can be used if students are not in compliance or organizations are not in compliance, and we have to be ready, if there is noncompliance, to take those actions,” Harroz said. “The first steps that Dr. Surratt’s organization has been doing have been really effective.”

While faculty questioned why, at this point in the semester, instructors are not being allowed to pivot their classes online or change format, Harroz instead looked toward the spring semester and noted that “doing a complete reboot right now is difficult to manage.” OU administrators are currently working on a plan for the spring, Harroz said, one that will likely allow for more flexibility when it comes to class format.

“The goal is to provide even more flexibility than was provided this semester — now how you do that and how you implement it is really important, and it’s beginning in a thoughtful way, thinking about students first,” said Harroz, who noted that the university and Faculty Senate are putting together surveys to gauge community needs for the coming semester.

Faculty also questioned why OU is not doing testing in greater quantity and with greater regularity. While OU has free testing available at two campus locations, the university has not mandated testing for students since administering a round of pre-move-in tests.

Harroz said that right now, OU is focused on mitigating, rather than containing, the spread of COVID-19, a strategy that determines where the university directs funding. Right now, regularly testing students on campus costs about $2.5 million weekly, and the university invested about $600,000 in testing students before move-in, Harroz said.

The university is working through testing availability and looking into more options, Harroz said, but is focused on mitigation through distancing and masking. Surratt said the university is focused on testing in areas that have higher infection rates, like student housing.

Emma Keith covers Norman Public Schools and the University of Oklahoma for The Transcript. Reach her at ekeith@normantranscript.com or at @emma_ckeith.

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