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.

The University of Oklahoma will mandate masks in classes for the first two weeks of the spring semester amid the surge of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, but will then return to its “masking expected” policy of the fall semester.

In a Monday email, OU Chief COVID Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler announced that during the first two weeks of class, the university will require masking “in all classroom settings." OU’s spring semester starts Jan. 18.

Bratzler’s email notes that the precautions will be in place through the end of the month, at which point OU will revert to its masking guidance of fall 2021, which “encourages masking” in classrooms and requires that a class mask for two weeks only after a member tests positive.

It’s not clear from Bratzler’s announcement why the university is mandating masks this semester after previously stating it could not require masks because of state law.

Throughout the fall semester, OU responded to employee and student requests for a mask mandate by citing Gov. Kevin Stitt’s executive order 2021-16 — which rescinded mask mandates in state buildings and prohibited state agencies from requiring vaccinations to enter a public building — and Senate Bill 658, which prohibits public universities from requiring masks for unvaccinated students or requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for admission and attendance.

The Transcript shared a list of questions with OU Monday morning about why the university is now mandating masks after claiming it could not legally do so for months in fall 2021. This story will be updated as the university provides answers.

Bratzler’s Monday email notes that the new policy is a result of the prevalence of the Omicron variant. While the variant is not necessarily more dangerous than previous variants — especially for those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 — Bratzler said Monday that "the greater transmission rate and supply chain issues around testing are offsetting challenges that require some modification of our protocols."

The news comes Monday as Oklahoma recorded its highest-ever seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases, clocking in at 6,829. The State Department of Health said in a statement that the numbers reflect "a steady increase in community transmission" along with increased testing efforts.

The university has not changed its stance on instructors’ teaching options. Oklahoma State University announced last week that for the first two weeks of class, instructors can pick between delivering classes fully in person with masks required, in a hybrid online/in-person format with masks required in person, or fully online.

OU’s Monday email, however, notes that instructors cannot change their class delivery method without approval from the provost’s office.

OU’s policy around vaccinations also remains the same; the university “strongly encourages” COVID vaccinations, but does not mandate them for the majority of the OU community.

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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