‘No one ever imagined being a Volunteer in a pandemic’: UT Knoxville Chancellor Plowman details new campus safety measures


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE)- The University of Tennessee-Knoxville will welcome students back to campus on Wednesday, Aug. 19, with new health and safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Over a three-day period, 50,000 wellness kits were put together to be given to students, faculty, staff and the greater campus community. The kits include health information as well as a mask and gaiter to be used as face coverings.

In the student wellness kits, they will also receive a thermometer to take their temperature every day.

These safety measures, like requiring masks, are just part of the bigger plan to keep the campus community safe.

“No one ever imagined being a Volunteer in a pandemic,” UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman said. “But here we are. I’m so proud of all the preparations that have been made.”

Tennessee will use three types of classes during the semester to keep class sizes small and students engaged, while also adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health guidelines. Some courses will be taught face-to-face in larger rooms so students can properly distance from one another, some will be taught online, and others will be a combination of both.

Plowman says 50% of classes will have a face-to-face component.

In face-to-face instructional settings, students will be spaced properly and protective measures will be in place. Time between classes will be increased to improve social distancing during transitions.

Masks and face coverings will be required while students are on campus. Faculty and staff have been equipped face shields, too.

“No professor has been told you have to teach face to face. And we certainly don’t want any faculty member who is in a high-risk category or who has a family member who’s a high-risk category (to be at risk). So maybe we have family members who are caring for their parents. So many of those faculty are going to be teaching their classes online. Those that are teaching face to face and a hybrid situation, many of them will be behind plexiglass,” Plowman said.

The number of students in dorms will be limited from year’s past. Normally, Tennessee has around 8,000 students in the dorms. This year, there will be 75-80% occupancy. The freshman requirement to live on campus has also been lifted to “de-densify” the dorms.

“We’ve also rented, purchased, created a number of isolation beds. So if a student does test positive, they have a place to go while they recover,” Plowman said.

Plowman said there will be less students on campus, but this year, there were more requests to live on campus compared to last year.

Protocol if UT student gets COVID-19

If a UT student is positive for COVID-19, they will be required to list their close contacts.

A student will be asked to indicate anyone they had contact with where they were less than 6 feet away in the last few days. The students listed will then receive a phone call of notification and be required to quarantine.

“So we’re going to follow the procedures that the county health department is using and expect that our students are going to participate and help us all stay healthy,” Plowman said.

UT students will be able to get COVID-19 tests done at the UT Health Center.

There will also be isolation rooms setup in dorms and in the community through a UT partnership with local hotels and apartments, if needed. Those spaces will be used if a student needs to quarantine.

“If they have a symptom, go to the health center. We can take care of them there,” Plowman said.

There will also be a website that updates daily on the number of students, staff, and faculty that tested positive for COVID-19 according to the chancellor. The website will also show the isolation space capacity.

“We need our students for this fall right now at this moment to be exceptionally careful. And we know … the easiest way to get infected is get in a big crowd of people in a small indoor environment and be yelling and singing. And so, so we are just begging our students, and I think they will, to stay away from those situations. But it’s on each of us. It’s on each student to make good decisions.”

University of Tennessee Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman

Plowman said 600 faculty members took courses online over the summer to prepare to teach virtually and how to do so effectively, without losing the value of the course.

“Our hope is that even if we ended up in a scenario where … we weren’t doing face-to-face classes, (students) could still be here. Some might be in isolation. And after 14 days, they’ve recovered and they come back into the dorm. We’re just much better prepared this fall. And it’s really sort of a continuum. As we got into looking at those three scenarios, what we realized is it’s a continuum,” she said.

The biggest difference for UT leaders from the final weeks of the spring 2020 semester to the start of the fall 2020 semester is preparation, according to Plowman. She said when the pandemic began and COVID-19 began impacting communities, there was not readily available isolation space and capacity like there is now.

“We don’t want mask police running around”

With new guidelines and policies on campus, enforcement is another conversation university leaders have already discussed.

Plowman is hopeful that students will take ownership of the new guidelines to keep themselves, their peers and the greater campus community safe.

If students are repeatedly ignoring the guidelines and mask policy, Plowman said, there will be a student conduct process initiated. Faculty have been told they may ask a student to leave their classroom if the student repeatedly chooses not to follow the guidelines, like wearing a mask. Faculty will have additional masks to give students if they do not have one.

“We don’t want mass police running around. We want students to police each other. Hey, you forgot your mask. People are doing that to me. In my office, I saw that somebody else had us a sign by his door. Don’t forget your mask. So we’re all figuring it out. You guys, thank you so much, I appreciate it. Stay tuned. It’s going to be a great semester.”

University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman

“We want a football schedule”

Plowman said there is no decision as to football in the fall, “stay tuned” was her message Thursday.

Plowman was appointed to the NCAA Division I Presidential Forum, becoming the first woman president or chancellor in the history of the Southeastern Conference to represent the conference in that position.

She spoke about the position not only as it relates to COVID-19 updates, but other issues that impact SEC student-athletes.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity. I’m a big sports fan. My children played sports. I believe that having a strong athletic program is valuable to the brand of the university, and I’m really proud of what we’ve done here, so it’s an honor really to represent the whole,” Plowman said.

Classes will begin as scheduled on Wednesday, Aug. 19. Tennessee will hold classes on Labor Day and the two days formerly scheduled as fall break, Oct. 8-9. The last day of instruction for the semester will be Tuesday, Nov. 24. All final exams will be held online Dec. 2-9.

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