Students studying (with masks)

On Tuesday, just one day after UT System President Randy Boyd announced that the system would lift mask mandates on all campuses in response to a bill signed by Governor Bill Lee, UT Knoxville announced plans to reinstate a mask mandate in most buildings beginning Monday, Nov. 22.

In an email to the UT community, Chancellor Donde Plowman said that the university planned to put a mask mandate back in place in order to comply with federal Executive Order 14042, which requires CDC mask guidelines in all buildings where work is conducted through federal contracts.

UT, along with a few other higher education institutions, was granted exemption from the state law shortly after Boyd’s announcement that the mask mandate was lifted, according to the State Comptroller’s website. In a constantly evolving climate of legal struggle between public entities and state officials, Plowman said that the mask mandate should be back on Nov. 22, “unless a court steps in.”

“We are waiting until Monday because the Tennessee attorney general has filed a lawsuit arguing that the federal vaccine mandate is unlawful and unconstitutional,” Plowman said. “Court rulings in that lawsuit or other legal proceedings could come by the end of this week and may provide additional clarity as to what UT Knoxville, as a federal contractor, will be legally required to do.”

Plowman encouraged students to be respectful of the wishes of peers and instructors where masks are concerned for the next week while no mandate is in place.

“In the meantime, please make whatever personal choice you think is best while being respectful of your fellow students, professors and all members of our campus community. If someone asks you to mask up, please consider doing so. That person may have a reason to be concerned about contracting COVID-19,” Plowman said. “Our students have shown what Volunteer leadership and courage look like. I am so proud of the way you have handled this semester by taking care of yourselves and one another.”

While announcing that mask requirements would be lifted at all UT campuses on Monday evening, President Boyd also said that UT had requested an exemption to allow for more flexibility at each campus to decide how to apply the law in accordance with executive orders from the Biden administration.

“The University of Tennessee System has applied for an exemption to allow each campus and institute the flexibility necessary to implement the requirements of the federal executive order as required by certain federal contracts with UT campuses and institutes,” Boyd said. “If we receive the exemption, you will hear directly from your leadership as to how the federal executive order may apply to your campus or institute.”

The temporary end of the mask mandate comes as case counts on campus are declining and many students have stopped wearing masks despite previous mandates.

Upon beginning this semester, the university only required masks in classrooms. This, however, was quite a shift from the original plan as they initially said there would be no mask mandate on campus. The change of plans was further complicated when case numbers continued to rise and Chancellor Donde Plowman instituted a mask mandate in all indoor spaces on campus.

Lindsey Campbell is a sophomore majoring in finance. Before the lift of the mandate, she said she was not surprised when UT started the year changing their initial mask plan.

“In the weeks leading up to school I was expecting something to change from what we were told last year,” Campbell said. “... the beginning of the school year I knew multiple people who got COVID so I, again, wasn’t surprised when the policy changed.”

Despite the increase in cases toward the beginning of the year, some students were not set on having a mandate on campus. Jackson Palumbo, a junior supply chain major, said before the mandate was lifted that he would prefer for there not to be a mandate, but does not think it has a significant impact on how safe he feels on campus.

“To me, my comfortability does not depend on whether there is a mask mandate or not,” Palumbo said. “I feel safe and normal regardless of a mask mandate. All in all I would be more comfortable without a mask mandate.”

Campbell agreed for the most part, saying that she does not see how much the mandate is actually doing when she feels more exposed at campus events or just in public in general.

“While I don’t have a problem wearing a mask on campus, I no longer see the point of the mandate,” Campbell said. “When I go into public, no one is wearing a mask. Even in football games where I feel a lot more exposed to COVID (than) in the library, no one is wearing a mask.”

While some students feel it is time for the mask mandate to go, the CDC recommends the continuation of masks on campus in their guidelines for institutes of higher education (IHEs).

“For IHEs where not everyone is fully vaccinated, CDC recommends universal masking indoors in public for all persons who are unvaccinated regardless of level of community transmission, and universal masking indoors in public for all persons (fully vaccinated and not fully vaccinated) in areas of substantial or high transmission,” the CDC wrote.

According to the CDC, Knox County is currently an area of substantial transmission, so they would still advise masking, even for vaccinated individuals.

Despite the sudden lift of the mandate, it is clear that masks will continue to be a heated debate on campus and they might be a topic of discussion for a long time to come.

“Even though I want to see us go back to normal, I can’t say if this will happen next semester,” Campbell said. “Most people I’ve talked to about this agree that COVID is something that we must accept as something that is not going away.”

“... We continue to delay the inevitable thinking people will just stop getting COVID, but that is not going to happen any time soon. So, I believe this will be a debate for at least another year.”

Palumbo agreed that this is not a debate that is going away anytime soon, even with cases going down and vaccination rates going up.

“I believe that the questions about masks will be relevant for about another year, simply because political media will choose to milk it for content,” Palumbo said. “I believe that most people are vaccinated and do not wear masks but people will still question (their) relevance for another year.”

UT Sponsored Content