Thousands of students have celebrated a return to campus after a year of isolation by filing into campus bars and house parties in pre-pandemic numbers. But with a rise in cases, unclear mandates and the Delta variant, many students are concerned about the University of Tennessee’s response to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic.
This fall semester, UT has transitioned to in-person classes after mostly being online last year. At the beginning, UT only required mask wearing in classrooms, a decision that they have recently changed into a full mask mandate for all public indoor areas. As of now, the university recommends, but doesn’t require, a full COVID-19 vaccination to attend classes.
The Daily Beacon reached out to several students, including a member of the Student Government Association (SGA), who have spoken up about their thoughts and concerns regarding COVID-19 for this semester.
For some students, it feels like only a matter of time until COVID-19 catches up to UT. Sophomore biology student Natalie Jankovsky talked about some of her concerns.
“When going into this semester, I am very concerned about current events, including the Delta variant of the Coronavirus, and the slowly rising vaccination rate. I know that the effects of these events extend everywhere, including into our own college campus,” Jankovsky said. “I am worried about this campus’s current lack of caution as a whole. I’m walking around campus, seeing these long lines and maskless crowds, and thinking, ‘how long is this going to last?’ How long will our normal school year last, if a majority is not aware of what is happening and taking measures against it?”
Jankovsky mentioned Tennessee’s legislature preventing schools from requiring vaccinations. Another student, senior microbiology student Dakota Moungey, expressed concerns on an academic and state level.
“I think the university does as well as it can trying to keep everyone safe, but fact of the matter is, our state has a poor vaccination rate, and people don’t take the new variant as seriously as it should,” Moungey said. “It’s probably only a matter of time before cases spike here as well.”
Moungey thinks that UT has reacted within reason based on CDC guidelines, as well as done more in preventing spread of the COVID-19 virus than the local government. However, Moungey added that he is worried “about large gatherings with the public like sporting events.”
A few students brought up UT’s response to COVID-19 as a concern. Senior London Monteque cited several concerns related to UT’s response.
“I don’t think that enough students are wearing masks, especially in large groups, and people are constantly going to parties and just not really caring about themselves nor others,” Monteque said. “I understand that if you don’t want to get the vaccine or wear a mask for your own reason, but also there are people around.”
“You have to take care of others as well, especially other family members, friends who might also be sick, and I think we’re just not doing a great job about it. Not even just students; professors in general, like UT administration as a whole.”
Monteque added that the recent mask mandate was good but should have been implemented sooner.
“I hope that no one gets it … I just hope that the cases go down and people get vaccinated, because I want us all to live,” Monteque said.
Some students see going back online as an inevitability.
“I don’t have much optimism for this year, if I am being honest,” Jankovsky said. “The University didn’t back down in Fall 2020 when cases were rising, but in that case they had support systems in place, like daily self-screenings, periodic dorm testing for Covid, contact tracing, and extensive isolation measures.”
“In the case of this semester, we have very little. UTK might try to be brave and stand their ground, but with the current support systems lacking as much as they are, more needs to be done to avoid needing to return online,” Jankovsky said.
Monteque said that she believes that “they’re going to shut the entire university down by fall break.”
Along with her, a few students, like sophomore civil engineering student Russel McCoig, gave a concrete prediction as to when the university will go back online.
“I give it till past the first football game,” McCoig said. “They’ve already committed a lot of money to this first Thursday game. They’re going to hold out as long as they can, and they might even try to hold out the entire football season. I can’t blame them. This is going to be the busiest football year we’ve had since maybe ’98.”
“UT is a business, it’s not a college. But that’s every college. You’re here to learn, but they’re here to make money,” McCoig said.
As for now, classes have remained in-person, only going online out of necessity if it already wasn’t online to begin.
In regard to UT’s response and what they can do to mitigate spread, a few students have decided to try and bring up issues themselves to the current administration. Senior advertising student Caroline Gregory met with Chancellor Donde Plowman to discuss issues and mandates to protect students.
“Truth be told, I think that the more students and the more faculty that speak up, the more (Chancellor Plowman is) going to be able to hear our voices,” Gregory said. “And it’s okay to be annoying. We pay thousands of dollars to come here.”
SGA is also taking steps to listen to students and take issues seriously. Student services director Nia Myrthil spoke about actively listening to students, along with paying attention to COVID-19 and the number of cases.
“I like to really hear about people’s opinions and their true honest opinions and what they want to see on campus, truly what they want to see, the changes that they want to make,” Myrthil said. “So I think the biggest thing with this whole pandemic is really just sitting down and truly listening.”
Myrthil said that SGA tries to do this with their events and meetings, making sure that they can accommodate everyone. If someone isn’t comfortable attending in-person, they provide an online resource for them to attend. She added that SGA is pushing back against misinformation on campus, especially about vaccines.
“There’s so much misinformation being spread, that the best that we can do is spread the correct information, making sure that our sources are reliable to our students and that we’re delivering that to our students as well, and making sure that they’re heard and that they’re able to see correct information,” Myrthil said.
Finally, even though they can’t require it, Myrthil said that SGA is pushing a vaccination campaign for students, moving away from the political elements of the vaccine and focusing on the science.
“Please get a vaccine if you can. Please wear the mask if you can,” Myrthil said. “At the end of the day, you’re protecting your own mental health and you’re protecting the mental health of others around you as well.”
Although we’re over a year into the pandemic, uncertainty for the future remains high. Students feel unheard as the semester rolls forward with many seeing a return to online classes soon.