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OSU hosts COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall

Friday, August 27, 2021

To reach out to all students, employees and parents, Oklahoma State University held a virtual town hall Aug. 26 focused on its updated COVID-19 protocols.

“The Delta variant has evoked a big response from all sides of this issue, and I am very sensitive to that,” OSU President Kayse Shrum said. “We're listening intently to learn the concerns of all parties involved as we develop policies to address the issues we face on campus.”

Dr. Shrum and a panel of university officials hosted the event and answered questions from the community. The other members of the panel were:

  • Dr. Johnny Stephens, Interim Senior Vice President
    for Health Affairs
  • Dr. Jeanette Mendez, Interim Provost
  • Dr. Doug Hallenbeck, Vice President, Student Affairs
  • Dr. Dennis Blankenship, Interim Dean, OSU Center for Health Sciences

Read selected highlights and watch the full town hall below. For more questions, go to or email us at 

  • We hear so many conflicting stories in the media and on social media about Covid and the Delta variant. How serious is it, really? Where can we turn for truth? 

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “There is a lot of information out there, unfortunately, there is a lot of bad information, as well. I can tell you from first-hand experience working in an ER in Tulsa that our hospitals in Oklahoma are overflowing. Many patients aren’t getting the care they need and that includes not only COVID patients but patients with other illnesses unrelated to COVID. 

    “As far as who you can talk to and get good information from, I think on a national, state and local level, your personal health care professionals and epidemiologists are always your best source.”

  • I've heard we can't mandate masks and vaccinations due to the executive order and state law SB 658. Do we have options? 

    Dr. Kayse Shrum: “That is true, the executive order, as well as Senate Bill 658, restricts our ability to mandate masks and vaccines. We are in communication with both the executive and legislative branch on an ongoing basis to explore what options we do have.

    “Currently, within our new guidelines and new protocols for the classroom, there is the option that when there is a positive case, to require masks within the classroom. So currently, we do have that option and continue to monitor what is going on and explore other options for our classrooms.”

  • Will the university immediately implement a vaccine mandate for student enrollment and employment at OSU now that we have full FDA approval? 

    Dr. Kayse Shrum: “I am very pleased that the Pfizer vaccine received full FDA approval and I believe very shortly that Johnson & Johnson and Moderna [vaccines] will also receive their FDA approval. In the study that was submitted for FDA approval were 43,000 individuals in that clinical trial, which is a significant number. I think that is a testament to the safety found within the vaccines. 

    “We will not be mandating vaccines as that is not in compliance with state law, but I would encourage everyone to get the vaccine. … Over 365 million doses of the vaccine have been given in the United States.”

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “As Dr. Shrum stated, there have been millions of doses that have been given, and we have seen a very small amount of side effects. Most of these side effects are short-lived and include things like fever and chills. Most of these things resolve within 24 hours and are pretty typical of vaccines. ...

    “If you look at the risk of the disease and the number of people who contract the disease and end up in the hospital, it is such a high risk [especially] compared with the vaccine, which has a very low risk of side effects.”

  • Will you be providing booster shots for vaccinated people? 

    Dr. Johnny Stephens: “The short answer is yes.”

    Currently, booster shots are available through UHS for those who are immunocompromised.

    “We think that in mid-September, there will be CDC guidance for everyone to get a booster who is eight months out from their last vaccine dose,” Stephens said. “So at that time, we will be preparing to give boosters to the community.”

  • What is the notification process for faculty if a student in their class tests positive? What about other contact tracing efforts?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “First of all, I just want to thank University Health Services and the Payne County Health Department who have done just incredible work over the last 18 months in doing contact tracing and working to do what’s right for the community. They continue to work together and provide public health support and guidance in the rising case numbers.

    “Due to the resources that Payne County has and the resources that University Health Services has, we are really prioritizing communal living situations where people are living close to each other, sleeping in the same room, that sort of stuff.  We also are working on a notification system for classrooms as well. When a student tests positive, faculty members are notified of a positive case, and we will notify the students in the class of a positive case as they are around the student within close distance.”

    There are differing guidelines for vaccinated and unvaccinated students, he said, and individuals will be instructed on next steps depending on their status. Students will also be told if masks are required in class due to an exposure. 

    “We have begun to automate more and more, and we feel like we have a really good system in place,” Hallenbeck said.

  • What is the protocol for professors to temporarily transition their class to online instruction because of positive cases in the classroom? 

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: Currently, there are three options with a positive case of COVID in the classroom.

    For two weeks after receiving notification of a positive case, faculty members will have three options: 

    1. They can continue face-to-face instruction as-is, with a requirement of masks in the classroom. 
    2. They can teach in a hybrid format, and for those two weeks, any face-to-face portions would require masks.
    3. They can move their class online for those two weeks.

    “At any point, faculty can be livestreaming throughout the semester and with their attendance policies, make it so that students can quarantine safely,” Mendez said. “Livestreaming ability is available in all of our classrooms. So we encourage faculty to work on what would best serve the needs of the students and their class in this transition.”

  • Where will free disposable masks be available?

    Dr. Johnny Stephens: “Facilities Management has put thousands of masks across campus with the provost’s office, Student Affairs and the colleges. In addition to those masks that we have available, we have ordered thousands more KN95 masks, as well as surgical masks, to back up and replace those masks that we are using now. We feel that we have an adequate supply of masks on campus with more coming in next week.”

  • What protocols are in place for students who test positive and need to quarantine? Is quarantine housing still available? Do those students get meals delivered?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “To answer the first part of the question, the protocol for students who test positive, whether they test positive at UHS or elsewhere, we will contact them and give them what their options are for quarantining. If they are off campus and get tested, we want them to let us know through UHS. If they live in on-campus student housing, they will be contacted by Res Life staff to discuss their options. If they live by themselves, then maybe they can quarantine in place. We also do have quarantine houses available. We have 50 beds right now, and we can expand that up. … Right now, we have more than enough quarantine beds to handle the current demand. We feel very good about that.”

  • Is there a consideration for virtual instruction and/or adjusting classroom capacity as the number of cases increase?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “At this time, we are just monitoring all the situations. So that means we are looking at all viable options for our classes depending on where we are. Right now, those are two that we are discussing, but right now the guidance that we put out is emphasizing when there is a positive [case] in your class and those options for the time being.”

  • When you say expected, does that mean required? How can instructors promote mask-wearing now that the policy has shifted from “recommended” to “expected?”

    Dr. Kayse Shrum: “It does not mean required. It is setting a standard where we expect people to wear a mask indoors. It is not required unless there is a positive case in the classroom, and then that is an option for the faculty member to require mask-wearing in that classroom.”

  • How should we be handling large group gatherings or meetings by student organizations at this time?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “Right now what we … have communicated with student organizations is for them to think about options that they can be virtual. If they are having regular meetings and events, if they can be virtual, think about doing that. We are not requiring that at this time, but we are asking them to consider that. As well as [asking them to think]  about larger group activities and how are those being handled. We are encouraging masks being worn and if they can do [activities] outside, do them outside. Think about those safety precautions and safety measures. We ask that all groups, not just student organizations, but any group on campus to do the same right now. We have seen some pretty good success so far and hopefully that will continue.”

  • After an exposure in my class, I can choose “option 3” to continue the course in person with masks required. How do I enforce this mask requirement?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “If you are going to choose either of the two options where masks would be required for two weeks after exposure, we encourage you to notify your students of that and how you are going to shift your class — what that will look like and remind them of that requirement. At that point, we will send out additional guidance that we used last year in encouraging students to comply with that requirement, so we would ask that you would ask your students to comply with that requirement. You can ask them to leave the classroom if they do not comply with that requirement or you can report the student to Student Conduct if there becomes an issue with them wearing their mask given that in that situation, it would be required. It is following CDC guidance, and we feel it is reasonable to ask students to comply, and we will send guidance on how you can approach your students and remind them of that requirement.”

  • What is going to happen to the football game capacity? Will increasing numbers impact seating and homecoming events?

    Dr. Kayse Shrum: “We are following the CDC guidelines, and currently the CDC guidelines do not address decreasing the capacity of outdoor events. It does state that where there is a high density of individuals that masking be a part of the guidelines at this time. We don’t anticipate right now any changes in the capacity in any events that are outdoors but of course, indoors we will be monitoring that. I think this is an important point to get vaccinated and wear our mask indoors so that hopefully we see a decrease in our numbers, and we don’t have any stricter guidelines going forward that would require us to decrease the capacity of any athletic event.”

  • Is it OK to move a class online if the majority of students refuse to wear masks?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “No, it is not OK to move the class online just because you have a majority of your students refusing to wear masks. Again, … if there is a positive case, we have those three options. We also are having a strong mask-up campaign that is going on across campus. Student groups are joining this campaign. We are continuing to encourage the mask-wearing and complying with the new expectation that masks are worn in classrooms. I think we are just going to continue to evaluate the situation, monitor where we are and work with our students in setting that expectation.”

  • The virus is airborne. How has OSU improved the air filtration on campus?

    Dr. Johnny Stephens: “On Aug. 16, OSU did increase the HVAC system an additional three hours every day. What this means is that 8-10 times every hour, the air turns over in the room, about every eight minutes. That is very good for the air flow in the room and we feel very positive about this. In addition to the air handlers, we also have MERV 13 air filters. These are hospital grade air filters throughout the campus that adds additional protection. I have been very proud of Facilities Management because they have really been out there looking for what the latest and greatest technology that we can add to the campus. Next week in Classroom Building and in North Classroom Building, we will be adding new filtration systems that actually eliminate the virus in the classroom.”

  • Our best defense is the vaccine. Instead of pushing students to wear masks, why not push them to get vaccinated?

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “Yes, I agree. The vaccine is our best defense. If you look at the patients we are seeing in the hospital now, the majority of them, the great majority, are unvaccinated. We strongly encourage vaccines, which is why we have our initiatives like the Poke-a-thon incentive program, which we started earlier this month and will continue to run.”

  • Will staff and faculty be given COVID leave if they become sick or have to care for someone with COVID-19?

    Dr. Johnny Stephens: “Unfortunately, the federal COVID leave ended on Dec. 31, 2020. So unless something changes at the federal level, faculty and staff employees will have to use sick leave here at the university. That is another good reason to get poked at one of our Poke-a-thons. We have a lot of pop-ups all across the campus, and University Health Services have done a good job, so I want to encourage vaccines as well. As with any of these cases, please talk with your HR representative and your supervisor. They will be able to give you the best guidance that we have in utilizing that sick leave and how we can best accommodate everyone.”

  • What faculty groups have you consulted, and are you taking their concerns into consideration?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “Faculty input is always part of our planning process. In just the last three weeks alone, I have regularly met with the deans, faculty council, faculty council officers, women’s faculty council leaders, staff advisory council leaders, student government leaders, graduate and professionals student leaders, the College of Arts and Sciences equity advocates, department heads at the College of Arts and Sciences, department heads in the Ferguson College of Agriculture, as well as all faculty meetings in the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, Education and Human Sciences and the Spears School of Business. Over in the provost’s office, we are discussing COVID 100 percent of the time, from the moment we wake up to late into the night. We are having these conversations. We are exploring all options that we are hearing and working in conjunction with all of those groups.”

  • Isn’t it best for individuals to speak with their personal medical professional to determine if they should get the vaccine?

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “I believe it is always best to talk with your personal physician. They know you and know your disease history and medications. Any problems that you have ever had with your medications, they are able to best give you personal advice about the vaccine and your risks. As a physician, I encourage all of my patients to get the vaccine. From what I have seen and seen people hospitalized and the horrible effects of this disease, I am very strongly in favor of the vaccine.”

  • What resources does OSU have for COVID testing?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “University Health Services has an ample supply of both rapid and PCR tests. We are doing about 300 a day and continue to see that we have a good supply. Anyone can go onto the University Health Services portal and sign up for vaccination time and then they can go. There have been questions about time. It could be maybe a 24-hour wait or the same day, but about 300 tests a day.”

  • If a student gets tested positive in a small classroom, should we assume that the whole class has caught the virus?

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “No, but you should assume that many of them have been exposed. The next steps would be to quarantine and test, followed by seeking medical care as needed. And encouraging those that are unvaccinated to become vaccinated.”

  • If I am vaccinated or have had COVID, why do I need to wear a mask?

    Dr. Dennis Blankenship: “We know the vaccine prevents serious illness and death. However, there are breakthrough cases among those who have been vaccinated and can contract the disease. While they may not get ill, they can still carry the disease and transmit it to the unvaccinated. Wearing a mask is that added step that helps keep those around you safe. Together the vaccine and masks are a pretty powerful one-two punch.”

  • Can a student staff member request another student to wear a mask before helping them if social distancing is not an option?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “Any time — a student staff member can always request that somebody can put on a mask. You can ask and give your reasons and say that you feel more comfortable. The choice is for the other person to wear it or not. If they refuse, then you might need to think about some alternate ways to help that student. We have thousands of student jobs on campus, so I would encourage a student staff member to talk to their supervisor and decide what the best course of action would be if someone said they refused to wear a mask. We still need to  help them so whether that is an online option, social distance option or whatever that case is. It is always OK for people to ask. I just feel like if we could engage in a culture of care where wearing a mask is not just your personal responsibility, but it makes someone else in the community feel better.”

  • Is it OK for an instructor to pass out masks to students in class?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “Yes, we think that is a good idea. A lot of the comments we received last week were from faculty saying that they were asking students to wear masks but students didn't have them available. We have thousands of masks that will be available or already are available. We have distribution points to get this into the faculty’s hands to bring to the class. We ask that you do this in a caring way. We ask that you not make this a requirement at this time, unless it is part of that guidance where there has been a positive case.”

  • How does a student apply for a medical exemption?

    Dr. Doug Hallenbeck: “We actually have a system in place that we put in place last year when we had a requirement for masks. They just need to go through University Health Services. They go to the website and go through the portal and request an exemption at that point.”

  • What suggestions do you have for faculty on balancing teaching responsibilities while providing quarantined students course materials and lectures?

    Dr. Jeanette Mendez: “There is no one answer, and it will depend on the class format. The colleges, as well as where we are filming today at ITLE, have plenty of resources available for faculty. We have resources on the ITLE website to help with that balance, we have the classroom technology that would allow livestreaming, and we have resources that would help with your class design, with distributing your PowerPoints and creating your PowerPoints. Whatever the faculty would need, we really do have the resources in place. A lot of that is the resources we invested in last year and making sure they are available. We always provide teaching support to our faculty, and I really want to say that ITLE really stepped in and provided an additional layer of support. If you are not aware of the support we have, I encourage you to reach out to ITLE and your college offices because the resources are there.”

  • If we work in a position that can be performed virtually, will we be allowed to work remotely while we are in quarantine or have a child in quarantine?

    Dr. Kayse Shrum: “The university wants to be supportive and the best place to answer the question whether your job can be performed virtually or not, is to your direct supervisor. So if you find yourself in that situation, the best place to ask that question is to your direct supervisor.”

  • I requested and received accommodation through the Office of Equal Opportunity during the summer; however, I believe it now should be reviewed. When can my accommodation be reviewed?

    Dr. Johnny Stephens: “The ADA interactive process is complex, and it has been impacted by COVID guidelines at the federal level. Our OEO professionals have worked closely with employees as well as the supervisors and department heads to walk them through this process. There are times when accommodation can be reviewed. Some of those examples are when there are substantive changes to an individual’s medical requirements, substantial changes to the work performed by the individual or when accommodation no longer enables an individual to successfully fulfill their duties. Really, with any work issue, I encourage you to work with your HR professional and supervisor to work to reach an accommodation.”

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