With the country experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, health officials suspect the new Omicron variant is making its way through area communities. Among local concerns include the safety protocols and policies for Northeastern State University and other campuses.
The Tahlequah Daily Press received a list of grievances twice recently about the institution’s procedures for handling the coronavirus. Among the cited complaints are failure to report cases in a timely manner; not allowing faculty and staff to mandate masks for those around them; and not responding to requests from department chairs for providing distance learning options. However, NSU administrators say they are following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“We post known active COVID-19 cases every week on Wednesday by 5 p.m.,” said Vice President of University Relations Dan Mabery. “Mask mandates are against the law in Oklahoma; see S.B. 658. NSU continues to monitor and adjust due to the proportionate known threat, not the perceived threat.”
The Oklahoma Legislature passed Senate Bill 658 during the 2021 legislative session, prohibiting public schools – including colleges and universities – from requiring students and staff to wear masks, unless Gov. Kevin Stitt issued a state of emergency due to the pandemic. It also bans schools from requiring vaccines, or vaccine passports, as a condition of admittance.
But an Oklahoma County Court granted a temporary injunction against the bill in September, effectively opening the door to mask mandates during the ongoing litigation. Some area public schools, including Tahlequah and Hulbert, implemented the requirements, though Tahlequah’s expired last week.
“Court challenges may or may not modify how NSU responds to the pandemic and what may be required of our employees,” NSU President Steve Turner wrote in a letter released Friday. “Keep in mind, President [Joe] Biden’s Executive Order that is being challenged related to vaccination applies only to employees and does not impose the same expectations for students.”
According to the letter, NSU currently has two known active student cases of COVID-19, and seven known employee cases among its three campuses. Turner said the school expects the number of cases to increase, given its high transmission rate, and encourages people get a COVID vaccine.
“The best and most readily available tool to protect yourself and others from the effects of this virus is to get fully vaccinated,” he said. “Although there are breakthrough virus cases among the vaccinated, the symptoms are generally less severe and do not result in hospitalization. Vaccines remain the best public health measure to protect people from COVID-19, slow transmission, and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging.”
Turner also asked the campus community to use “common-sense approaches,” including wearing a mask in indoor public places; staying at least 6 feet away from others; avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces; washing hands often; covering coughs and sneezes; cleaning high-touch surfaces; and monitoring daily health.