Masks are optional as students head back into classrooms for the first time in over a year
On May 20, 2021, The University of Tulsa announced initial plans to return to a “new normal” for the fall semester. Classes were to shift back to predominantly in-person and buildings were to return to full capacity. This plan has been upheld despite the resurgence of the virus through the Dela Variant occurring later in the summer. The University has now completed its first full week with this return plan, with classes and activities in full swing.
Well over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus is still ever-present, with the newly surging Delta Variant causing the majority of new cases. The variant is more infectious than the original strain and is more capable of breaking through the vaccines. A recent study estimated one person infected with the new variant infects an average of seven other people, whereas the original strain averaged only three further infections. Vaccines do still protect against more serious infection, with vaccinated individuals having far lower hospitalization and death rates. However, vaccinated individuals with the Delta Variant still possess a similar size of viral load, making them equally capable of spreading the virus.
Oklahoma, along with all other states, has suffered a huge increase in cases in comparison to late May and early June. On August 27, the CDC reported a seven day case average of 2,699 cases in Oklahoma, a far cry from the lowest point of the summer, where the average often ran under 100 cases.
TU is still taking many precautions to prevent the spread of the new variant. Unvaccinated students are subject to regular mandatory testing. Vaccination has also been encouraged through a promise of raffles if 75 percent vaccination is reached, though this seems unlikely to occur before the deadline of Aug. 31. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being offered at no expense to students through the Alexander Health Center. Masks are not required on campus, though the University does mirror the CDC’s “strong recommendation” for masks while indoors. Professors are also free to establish their own mask policies within their classrooms, including mask requirements.
Staying online, however, would continue a model of education that many students believe is inferior to in-person classes. With vaccines being widely available and a full end to the pandemic nowhere in sight, perhaps now is as good a time as any to attempt the beginning of a “new normal.” TU’s plan also allows for all campus activities to resume, which offers a much-needed social lift for the isolated students.
Several primary schools in Tulsa County have already gone virtual after high infection counts. Tulsa Public Schools is reopening, though with a mask mandate for both staff and students starting in September. The legality of these mandates is still in question, as a law banning mask mandates was passed in the Oklahoma legislature this July. An ongoing lawsuit is challenging the validity of this legislation. States like Texas and Florida have created similar mask mandate bans and have faced similar legal challenges.
TU’s total vaccination rate is currently about 69 percent, with staff at 77 percent, faculty at 88.5 percent vaccinated and the student body only at 66.5 percent. Our test positivity rate has remained low, with only 1.9 percent of tests coming back positive. This is roughly similar to TU’s positivity rate during online-only semesters, though it did often dip even lower.
The University has not set a definite case count or positivity rate that would necessitate a shut-down of in-person activities. If cases don’t significantly rise, campus should be safe enough to continue these activities. Without vaccine and mask mandates, the risk of an outbreak remains, but staying online may risk depriving students of the holistic college experience.