Along with students, faculty and staff at the University of Tennessee have concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
On Sept. 7, the United Campus Workers (UCW) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) held a press conference in the Humanities and Social Sciences Plaza at 1 p.m. The press conference had several speakers including professors, staff members and graduate students.
The press conference focused on a series of demands from the UCW and AAUP which are included in a petition currently circulating, along with the personal concerns and experiences of the speakers.
Their demands include remote teaching and working options, free N95 masks and COVID-19 tests, hazard pay for workers, mask and social distance campaigns and a full campus mask mandate.
A few hours after the conference, Chancellor Donde Plowman sent a campus-wide email announcing the extension of the mask mandate.
Mary McAlpin, a tenured French professor and president of UTK’s chapter of the AAUP, began by speaking about the faculty’s experience last year.
“Last year was really really rough,” McAlpin said. “It was rough for the faculty. We weren’t able to be in the classroom with our students, and there is nothing comparable to being in the classroom with these students … The experience is just not the same online.”
McAlpin added that the faculty believed UTK’s administration reacted well during that time, listening to experts and scientists about what to do regarding COVID-19. However, with people not getting vaccinated and the Delta variant spreading, the faculty aren’t pleased with the administration’s current response.
McAlpin pointed to an article written for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Semester of Magical Thinking,” equating it with what UTK is doing this semester.
“That is how I see the administration reacting this year. They’re using magical thinking,” McAlpin said. “They are trying to pretend that nothing is actually different than it was before the pandemic. That we’re not still in the pandemic.We are certainly still in the pandemic.”
“At least as of last week, the state of Tennessee, if it had been a country, would have been the second worst for (COVID-19) in the entire world. It is an extraordinary statistic, and pretending that that’s not the case and holding a football game with 84,000 people where masks are not required and no one’s checking for vaccination status is an unconscionable thing to do.”
She went on to criticize the handling of the mask mandate, saying that UTK didn’t require mask wearing earlier in the semester. She said that even though their petition for a larger mask mandate did enact change, it was already two weeks into the semester and students were familiar with the previous limited requirements. Now, students are begrudgingly wearing them and it’s not fully enforced.
McAlpin read a brief section from the article before calling for the administration to read their current petition and listen to the faculty’s concerns. She concluded by telling the administration to listen to scientists as well as the work they’ve done in creating the vaccine.
Katie Hodges-Kluck, program coordinator at the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, took to the podium to discuss how the staff at UTK feel like they are not being cared for by the university as a whole.
“We really have sort of felt as an afterthought in all of the university’s planning for pandemic safety,” Hodges-Kluck said. “Staff have been expected to stay on campus, even as faculty and students can stay away and keep safe. Staff were the first ones brought back to campus this summer.”
“And so we really feel like we’re the sacrificial lambs, who are expected to represent the university physically in this sort of back-to-normal political optics, without taking into account the safety of all of us who have been brought back,” Hodges-Kluck said.
She added that morale amongst staff members have decreased as more and more staff look for other jobs away from the university.
Hodges-Kluck shared that, though she is vaccinated, she has particular reasons to be worried about contracting a breakthrough case.
“I, also, am immunocompromised. I am 30 weeks pregnant,” Hodges-Kluck said. “Pregnant women who catch (COVID-19) are more likely to be intubated. They are more likely to require medical respirators and are 10 times more likely to die. I think of that number every single time I get in the elevator with someone who is poorly masked.”
Hodges-Kluck shared a host of other concerns, including overworked and understaffed IT technicians having to deal with the overabundance of online users on campus, students with disabilities who are now having a difficult time in-person and staff members who fear they might break down into tears because of the amount of students who have shared their COVID-19 related losses with them.
She called for increased vaccine requirements, or at least increased encouragement, for everyone on campus.
“Volunteers listen and learn from one another,” Hodges-Kluck said. “So we call upon our campus leaders to listen and learn from doctors and nurses at the UT Medical Center, who are overwhelmed right now. And instead of supplying campus employees who have been vaccinated with free water bottles, we want free (COVID-19) tests with rapid turnaround and free masks and other safety equipment for anyone who has to work on campus.”
She also called for flexible schedules and assignments, giving faculty and staff options for how they want to teach. Finally, Hodges-Kluck called for campus leaders to trust professors and campus employees in regard to health and campus issues.
Mia Romano, a senior Spanish lecturer and vice president of UCW, discussed being back in the classroom after being online last year.
“I have not been in a grocery store or a restaurant since March 2020, or seen my parents in California since Dec. 2019 as the pandemic rages on for over a year,” Romano said. “But now, I am forced back into the classroom. We were promised that UTK would follow the CDC, yet we are not doing so.”
Romano brought up the current mask mandate, the lax vaccine recommendations and how students are packed into each classroom. She discussed wanting to teach, but feeling unsafe as she can’t move back online for everyone’s safety.
“The administration is acting like it is safe to be back at full capacity, because they presume everyone who can get vaccinated is vaccinated,” Romano said. “They put the honors on us to do what is right, but they won’t do what is right, what is necessary to stop the spread.”
Romano said that her colleagues felt safe last year because of the restrictions put in place and the guidelines being followed. However, they now feel unsafe this semester as the university moves away from what they put in place before.
She equated this to UTK charging tuition towards a “normal college experience” and, as she put it, ignoring science.
“I want to ask the UTK administration, provost Zomchick, chancellor Plowman and president Boyd: how many UTK workers is acceptable to lose to COVID-19 so that 30,000 students can have in-person classes?” Romano said. “How many long-serving workers? How many students? Clearly, the answer is more than zero, or else you would have put more safety measures into place before the semester started.”
Anne Langendorfer, president of UCW and lecturer in the English department, provided closing words for the press conference. She thanked the speakers and the people who have signed the petition so far.
“This small group of us here gathered today represents a much larger community here at UTK, not only of the 850 coworkers who have signed our petition, but of higher ed workers across the state,” Langendorfer said.
She said that as COVID-19 cases rise, higher education throughout Tennessee looks towards UTK as the UCW and the AAUP call for the administration to meet their demands “to ensure a safer campus” for everyone.