COVID-Ready Campus

UT pedestrian walkway

COVID-Ready Campus

Masks, shields, isolation areas and online instruction: The University of Tennessee prepares for the fall.

by jesse fox mayshark • june 26, 2020


a sign on a walkway at the university of tennessee-Knoxville aims to maintain distance between pedestrians. 

Students returning to campus in August at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will find a familiar terrain rendered strange.

UT is working on a health app that students would have to log in to every day.

Face masks will be required in common areas. Flu vaccines will be mandatory. Professors will lecture from behind plexiglass shields. Directional signs will regulate pedestrian traffic to limit interaction. And there will be lots and lots of temperature taking.

“I would say that this is not going to be a ‘new normal’ but a better normal,” UT President Randy Boyd told members of the university’s Board of Trustees on Thursday during a special session on the institution’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “We're working hard to make sure that the students get a great educational experience and we keep them safe. I think we can do all of those things.”

Students have not been on any of UT’s campuses since mid-March, when they departed for spring break just as the pandemic was spreading rapidly in the United States. But the plan is to bring them back into classrooms and dormitories for the fall, with extensive health precautions in place.

The briefing yesterday was part of the Trustees’ two-day annual meeting, which continues with a full board meeting at 9:30 a.m. this morning. The proceedings are all virtual; you can find a video link on the UT website.

Managing Risk

A memo presented yesterday made clear that UT administrators expect the coronavirus to have an ongoing presence on campus.

“Eliminating transmission of the virus on UT campuses is not a realistic option,” the memo said. “Our efforts should be focused on managing the spread of infection and mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on the quality of the educational experience and on the health of our students, faculty, staff, and communities.”

To that end, all students will be required to complete a health education module certifying that they understand and will abide by preventive measures.

“We're going to call it the Volunteer Commitment, where you commit to do the following,” UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman told the trustees. “You self-test every day, you take your temperature. We're all working on a version of some sort of app on their phone, and they're going to answer questions every day. You get the green light, you can go to class. You get the red light, you go to the health center.”

UT has already announced changes to its normal semester schedule. UT Knoxville students will start classes on Aug. 19 and continue straight through to Nov. 24, with no time off for Labor Day or the normal two-day fall break in October. They will leave for Thanksgiving and then complete finals and any remaining class work from home, not returning until the spring semester starts in January. 

“It keeps our students here but also gives them a much longer break to be home through the holidays,” said UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver.

The idea is that by limiting student travel back and forth from campus, potential viral spread can be minimized.

Speaking of travel, the prohibition on faculty or students going abroad for study or research that was put in place this spring will continue. 

“I think all of us have decided that it's best to just suspend travel study and study abroad in foreign countries and just hit pause on that,” Carver told the trustees. “We're really working and watching international national data as it comes available.”

As for classroom instruction, Plowman estimated that 30 to 40 percent of courses this fall will be completely online, with the rest being a combination of in-person and a hybrid model where some students could be in the classroom and some remote.

She said any faculty who have health concerns will not be required to teach in person.

“We made it very clear from the beginning that we did not want any faculty member who was in a vulnerable category to feel any pressure to do face to face teaching,” Plowman said. “And vulnerable could mean, ‘I'm healthy, but my spouse is undergoing chemo.’”

UT Knoxville non-tenured lecturers published a letter yesterday seeking the same assurances. Lecturers often teach large classes of freshmen and sophomores. The letter, signed by 203 lecturers, also sought a minimum two-year appointment for any who taught during the spring 2020 semester. Lecturers are typically on year-to-year contracts.

“We need job security to do our jobs well, and you need us to do our job well so you can lead a university successfully,” the letter said. “But during this time of great social and economic upheaval, we have virtually no job security, which threatens the ability of UT to educate students.”

Vaccines and Masks

The trustees yesterday also gave initial approval to a new policy that would require all students to get a seasonal flu vaccine, along with a COVID-19 vaccine if one becomes available.

“The hope is that by requiring these immunizations, we can minimize the likelihood that a flu outbreak would mask an outbreak of COVID or overly tax the healthcare system with respiratory illnesses,” said Ryan Stinnett, UT’s general counsel.

Faculty and staff will also be required to get the flu shot. Anyone with a religious objection to vaccinations or a doctor-certified medical reason to avoid the shot will be exempt.

Plowman said to allow for adequate distancing in classrooms, some classes will be held in unusual places, like large meeting rooms. They will also be stretched across the week, which probably means more classes than usual in the evenings and on Fridays.

“Let's just take a classroom that typically might seat 40 people tightly,” Plowman said. “In many cases, we measure that off and social-distance mark them off, we could really seat 12 to 15 students in there. So there is a demand on larger-size classrooms or multiple sections.”

In a hybrid class model, it’s possible only half or one-third of students in a class would be physically in the classroom, with the rest watching remotely.

The campuses are also identifying isolation areas where students will be able to be quarantined while infected or awaiting test results.

And yes, face masks or shields will be mandatory.

“If you’re on campus in a group, you’ve got a mask on,” said Steve Schwab, chancellor of the UT Health Science Center in Memphis. “There’s clear evidence that that dramatically diminishes the spread of COVID-19.”

For all the precautions in classes, athletic activities and other controlled settings, Trustee Bill Rhodes raised an obvious question about the university’s young charges: “What about when they’re on their own? Is there a way to manage what people are doing outside of scheduled time?”

Plowman acknowledged that will be a challenge.

“That’s the issue,” she said. “We can control what they do when they're with us. But what they do in the evenings, where they go, that's where it's just really important that the leaders, the coaches, the faculty, the administration, that we just reinforce the need to be careful and to social distance.

“But we’re setting a really high standard, and I’m optimistic that students will want to help each other stay safe.”