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OU Rally Urges University Leaders To Mandate Masks And Vaccines, Push Against Governor Stitt

Members of the OU community rally on Campus September 21, 2021
Beth Wallis
Members of the OU community rally on Campus September 21, 2021

Some of the University of Oklahoma’s faculty, students and staff are demanding change in the administration’s handling of COVID-19 mitigation policies.

Professor Julie Ward read a statement from an anonymous adjunct faculty member at a rally Tuesday in front of OU’s administration building.

“We don't need millionaires with the title of Regents to tell us what our lives and our labor are worth. We are not disposable,” Ward read. “And we don't owe any allegiance or respect to an institution that treats us like we are.”

About 100 people gathered for the rally, calling for the university to revise its stance on several policies, including mandating masks indoors, requiring the COVID-19 vaccination and publicizing a rebuttal or challenging in court the state and governor’s rules against mask mandates.

The protest was part of OU Days of Action, a 2-day event meant to put pressure on the administration to change its policies. Faculty, staff and students were asked to walk out on all OU activities, including classes, on Monday and Tuesday. Monday, demonstrators attended an OU Board of Regents meeting holding signs saying, ‘Our leadership fails us on workplace safety.’ Toward the end of the meeting, Julie Ward requested to read a letter to the regents signed by several hundred OU community members.

OU has maintained that its decision against mandating vaccinations or masks is due to Senate Bill 658 and Executive Order 2021-16. Senate Bill 658 restricts school boards from requiring vaccinations or mandating masks for unvaccinated students. An Oklahoma County district judge recently granted a limited temporary injunction on the law, and schools across the state are implementing mask mandates. Executive Order 2021-16 forbids mask mandates in all buildings or office spaces owned or leased by the state.

OU Presidential Professor of Law Joseph Thai has been a vocal critic of the university’s interpretation of the laws and spoke at the Tuesday rally.

“If you actually read SB658, there's only two provisions on masking,” Thai said. “ One provision, the one that applies to K-12 schools like Norman Public Schools. But needless to say, OU is not a K-12 institution. There's another provision in SB658 that applies at the university level. That provision only forbids, quote, a ‘mask mandate for students who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19,’ end quote. So by its terms, that provision only prohibits you from adopting a mask mandate that singles out unvaccinated individuals. We can mandate that regardless of vaccination status at the university level, at the college level, at the departmental level, at the faculty level.”

One week into the start of the Fall 2021 semester, OU changed its policy so that if a student in a class tests positive for COVID-19, that class can continue to meet in person, but students must be masked in the classroom for two weeks. Thai maintains there is no legal merit to the university’s argument that it can mandate masks only after a student gets sick.

Emily Merckx, an elementary education sophomore, attended Tuesday’s rally. Emily’s mother is a faculty member, and she says she came to the rally to stand up for her mom and her friends that have been impacted by COVID-19.

“They make a big deal about listening and caring about their students,” Merckz said. “But when it comes down to it, like, that's the whole reason that we're here, is because they're not listening to us.”

The American Association of University Professors has been urging the administration to implement stronger COVID-19 policies throughout the course of the pandemic. AAUP spokesperson and history professor Jennifer Davis says the time for OU to act is now.

“Our health is at stake. I can't sit by if there's anything that we can do to say, ‘you have the power to do this.’ The science says we should do it,” Davis said. “ The CDC says we should do it. The Oklahoma State Department of Health says we should do it. Let's mandate masks. It's a very simple thing. We could do it tomorrow. If there's any possibility that they would change their mind, I have to be out here saying, let's do that.”

The Norman Transcript reports that the university responded to a statement request Tuesday, saying in part, “Mitigation strategies within the scope of the law have been implemented,” and that the university urges community members to get vaccinated and “continue practicing healthy behaviors.”

Beth reports on education topics for StateImpact Oklahoma.
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