A group of University of Oklahoma staff and professors gathered outside Evans Hall Monday and made their demands clear — OU should not reopen for in-person classes this fall.
As OU students are scheduled to return to campus housing Tuesday in preparation for classes starting on Aug. 24, several OU staff members attended a “Save Our Staff” rally to protest the university’s decision to resume in-person classes.
Several protesters spoke from the steps of Evans Hall, and others held signs expressing feelings toward the university, including “save our staff” and “save a life, teach online.”
Mauve Kay, OU staff member, said the current COVID-19 pandemic has made it unsafe for students and staff to return to campus. There are 1,477 cumulative COVID-19 cases in Norman and 31 total deaths, according to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
“If you ask many in the OU community, we are not ready to reopen,” Kay said. “The risks are far too great. Cases in Oklahoma are surging, with record numbers climbing almost every day. The death tolls nationwide are on the rise again. If OU reopens, it is not a matter of if there will be an outbreak, but when. People will die if OU reopens. … We demand that (OU) President (Joseph) Harroz and the Board of Regents move the University of Oklahoma to virtual instruction and operation immediately to protect all members of the OU community.”
Additionally, the group urged the university to create protections for all professors and, in particular, staff members unable to do their jobs in an online environment. Protections include emergency COVID-19 administrative pay and time-and-a-half hazard pay for all essential on-campus workers, Kay said.
The group also demanded no layoffs for staff members, and that all furloughs and pay cuts should come from the university’s top earners on campus, including athletic staff.
“The people making life-or-death decisions for us are wealthy and safe. … Their choices will kill members of our community,” Kay said. “The people with their lives on the line, the people first in line to be laid off, are some of the lowest-paid staff on campus. People who are making $20,000 are being told to risk their lives or lose their jobs. All of OU’s workers are worth protecting, not just those who can do their job on Zoom.”
Bailey Hoffner, OU staff member, said many staff members are worried about discussing their concerns with in-person instruction in the fall because of fear of retaliation or losing their jobs.
“Staff remain quiet out of fear that we will lose our jobs, and in a ‘right to work’ state, this fear is absolutely justified,” Hoffner said. “I am speaking with you today because I am tired of functioning from a position of fear, afraid to get in trouble and afraid to lose my job. I shouldn’t have anything to fear in simply saying that we need a voice in policy conversations that could have potentially deadly implications.”
Hoffner said she believes President Harroz and many on administrative staff are good people that want to do the right thing, but it’s still important for OU staff and students to speak about their concerns.
“They are in what seems to be in an impossible situation, but we are here to help,” Hoffner said.
Kesha Keith, OU director of media relations, released a statement from the university regarding Monday’s protests, stating that there “might come a time when the virus spreads to the point that the university has no other choice but to go fully online,” but OU will respond appropriately until that time comes.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, OU has made safety its top priority,” the statement reads. “The university was among the first in the region to go online after spring break; mandated masks before any city in Oklahoma; and is a national leader in on-campus safe-return preparations, investing millions of dollars in such measures.
“Going immediately and fully online has very real implications. Importantly, the power of the OU degree is greatest when delivered in-person. We exist for our students and many would not be able to complete their degrees without in-person classes. Further, going fully online would have a major impact on OU staff, particularly those with direct in-person, student-facing responsibilities.”
While all OU full-time employees were retained after spring break, this would not be financially sustainable if the university moves to an online environment in the fall, the statement reads.
“While President Harroz has indicated that those in executive roles and the highest-paid positions would be among the first to take pay cuts, this would not be enough to avoid necessary furloughs and layoffs for those whose positions are not necessary in an online-only environment,” the statement reads.
The university has also made a priority to work with staff to ensure they are able to work comfortably this semester, the statement reads.
"Importantly, over the past several weeks, OU reached out to all faculty and staff and asked if they felt they needed to work away from campus this semester," the statement reads. "For faculty, 97% of such requests were granted and the remaining 3% are being worked on. For staff, because of the extensive use of telecommuting, there have been only seven requests that weren’t granted, as such work simply required them to be in-person."
While the university has tough decisions to make, Kay and other protesters said safety should be the highest priority considered when making these decisions.
“We know it’s only a matter of time before there are outbreaks on campus,” Kay said. “We know it’s only a matter of time until one of our friends, colleagues or someone we don’t even know dies from an infection caught on campus. There is no magical number that must be met to justify a move to online instruction. We must act now to save lives.”