‘Our Case Counts Are Going Up Way Too Fast’

Fraternity Park UT

'Our Case Counts Are Going Up Way Too Fast'

UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman warns students — and fraternities in particular — that the semester is hanging in the balance.

by jesse fox mayshark • september 9, 2020


The entrance to fraternity park on the university of tennessee campus.

University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman on Tuesday issued her starkest warning yet to students about rising COVID-19 cases on campus.

Reports of fraternities planning parties to evade campus health protocols.

“Our case counts are going up way too fast,” Plowman said during her regular Tuesday morning briefing. “And we will need more drastic measures to stop the upward trajectory.”

Plowman singled out UT fraternities in particular for not only not observing pandemic health guidelines but actively seeking to evade them.

“We have disturbing information stemming, frankly, from the fraternities,” Plowman said. “In particular, fraternity leaders communicating to houses how to have parties and avoid being caught, avoid the police; stories of a fraternity renting space off campus to have their party, crammed with lots of people in close quarters; telling fraternity members not to get tested, or how to get tested so the results are not shared with the university.”

UT Knoxville reported 600 active cases of COVID-19 yesterday, up 10 from the day before and the highest number yet on campus. Of those, 592 were students and eight were faculty or staff.

A total of 1,939 students and 73 employees were in self-isolation as of Tuesday. That means more than 6 percent of the student population is currently in isolation, either because of a positive COVID-19 test, because they have developed symptoms, or because of a close contact with someone infected.

The isolation numbers include 955 students who live on campus, which is straining the university’s designated quarantine spaces. Those include quarters set aside in dormitory buildings as well as hotel rooms off campus. Plowman said UT has contracted with an additional hotel to provide more capacity.

“This hotel will not be enough, and we are in the process of creating more isolation space on campus,” she said.

Plowman emphasized that the growing case count threatens the ability of the university to hold classes and have any events on campus.

“We must keep these numbers at a manageable level,” she said. “We can manage this, but everyone has to help.”

Since classes began on Aug. 19, UT’s Greek system has emerged as a focal point for the spread of the coronavirus. Seven sororities have been identified as case clusters, and five fraternities and one sorority were placed on interim suspension because of reports of mass gatherings in violation of campus health protocols.

Plowman said Tuesday that reports of efforts to circumvent the reporting, contact tracing and isolation requirements for infected students were particularly troubling.

“Actively working to avoid isolation and quarantine is reckless,” she said. “And it will further spread this virus, jeopardizing everyone else's opportunity for a fall semester on campus.”

Shawn Spurgeon, the president of UT Knoxville’s Faculty Senate, said Tuesday that faculty members have a range of concerns and opinions about how the pandemic is being handled on campus. But he praised Plowman for listening to health experts and being open to faculty input.

“She’s very receptive,” said Spurgeon, an associate professor of educational psychology and counseling. “The administration has been working hard to try to continue this shared governance.”

But, he said, the fall semester is presenting challenges no one on campus has faced before.

“It’s unprecedented,” Spurgeon said, adding, “We just want everybody to be safe.”

UT is far from alone in struggling to contain rising case counts while keeping campus open. The University of Alabama saw cases spike as soon as its campus reopened, the University of South Carolina reported 654 active cases yesterday, and the University of North Carolina’s flagship Chapel Hill campus moved all classes online after a COVID-19 surge.

Plowman did not say Tuesday what kinds of additional measures she may announce in the coming days. But she listed some actions taken at other campuses, ranging from curfews to moving classes online to “lockdowns impacting Greek communities.” 

“We’re evaluating a range of options,” Plowman said. “And let me be clear, everything is on the table at this point.”