A year ago, Knoxville had only just begun to face the first wave of COVID-19. When the university rushed to send Volunteers home in March of 2020, students and staff could only imagine what the following school year would look like.
When students returned to campus for the fall semester — albeit in fewer numbers than usual — positive COVID-19 cases soared. According to the university’s COVID-19 guide, numbers reached their peak in mid-September at roughly 680 cases across the student and employee populations.
Now, campus is consistently keeping its active cases well below the 100 mark. In contrast with the chaos of the fall semester, such a massive decrease in the pandemic’s on-campus presence begs the question: How exactly has UT managed to produce these results?
According to Dr. Spencer Gregg, director of the Student Health Center, UT’s current status can be greatly attributed to the university’s commitment to following COVID-19 safety protocol.
“We had to make quick decisions to keep the campus community safe. The chancellor set three key principles to guide our response – be compassionate, be creative, and be flexible. Those values have guided the university throughout this unprecedented year,” Gregg said.
More specifically, UT’s response to the pandemic consisted of adapting to meet COVID-19 guidelines — adaptations which have now become everyday life to on-campus Volunteers.
“The university put mitigation efforts in place, such as requiring masks on campus and encouraging social distancing. The university also created its own contact tracing and widespread COVID-19 testing programs, including community saliva testing. Neither of those two programs had ever been done on this campus,” Gregg said.
“We had to build those from the ground up. Facilities Services also quickly adapted classrooms and other campus spaces for social distancing. The university also placed signage around campus encouraging mask wearing and social distancing,” Gregg said.
Now midway through the second semester, the university is taking new steps in its initiative to distribute the vaccine.
Tyra Haag, director of news and information at UT, mentioned the new availability of vaccines for all adults in Knox County.
“The great news is that anyone age 16 and older in Knox County is now eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. We encourage our students to get vaccinated on or off campus as quickly as possible,” Haag said.
Moving forward, the university has recently announced its plans for a fully in-person campus experience this fall. According to a March 11 update from the UT Campus News page, these plans currently include a return to regular classroom learning, as well as the operation of all housing, dining halls and athletic events at full capacity.
“Throughout the past year, we’ve heard from students how much learning and socializing in-person means to them. Plus, vaccine availability is growing and COVID-19 numbers are encouraging. As we’ve learned though, anything can change with this pandemic, and it’s important to continue following all safety measures,” Haag said.
“We’ve missed having all of our students in one place and can’t wait to see more than 30,000 Vols walking around campus again this fall.”
Taking into consideration the inevitable ambiguity that surrounds the pandemic, UT is prepared to adjust these plans as called for by safety guidelines. Regardless, the growth that the university has experienced over the last year regarding its management of COVID-19 has been significant.
“A year ago, we were all faced with uncertainty as we learned to navigate life during the pandemic. Now, we know how to slow the spread of the virus. We know wearing masks and staying socially distant work. As we have done from the beginning, we are monitoring COVID-19 data and continue to follow health guidance. We are proud of our students, faculty and staff who have continued to work toward success during this pandemic,” Gregg said.