As students began returning to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville campus over the past several days, there were several noticeable changes: Desks in classrooms are spaced out, masks are worn nearly everywhere and most dining is now to-go.

Wednesday was the first day classes have been offered on campus since March, when UT moved all classes online following spring break. There were 97 active cases of COVID-19 and 355 people in self-isolation at the university as of Wednesday.

Landon Harrell, a sophomore, said he’s taking his classes online this semester, but he came to campus to work. While he’s noticed a lot of changes, he felt like professors were working with students to make sure everyone was prepared for the semester. 

“We’re all kind of on the same page, getting used to everything,” Harrell said.

Harrell said he was looking forward to the semester and thought opening campus was the best option. Quickly moving to online classes in the spring was difficult, but he felt better prepared for the fall, he said. 

He was also happy with the precautions UT has taken and the requirements in place.

“I actually feel like they’ve done a great job,” Harrell said. “I’m just thankful to actually be here.”

COVID-19 changes options for socializing

Erin Herbers and Gia Vergara are roommates from Memphis. Herbers attended a virtual French class and Vergara took a virtual chemistry class in their dorm Wednesday morning.

Both of them said making friends will be different since there are less in-person opportunities to meet classmates.

“You can sit next to someone and then, like, talk about the class and then become friends that way,” Herbers said. “But on Zoom, you’re just on a screen, so it’s like everyone logs on at the same time, everyone logs off at the same time. It’s not like you can have those personal connections with someone over Zoom.”

Despite the unusual school year, Herbers and Vergara said they are happy to be on campus.

“I’d rather be miserable with everyone in the same place than at home,” Herbers said. “So I wanted to have the chance of it getting better and me being here than it getting better and me missing out on all the experiences I could have had.”

For Alexandria Moore, a freshman, the new guidelines mean changes to the social aspect of how she’d imagined college. Social distancing and wearing a mask have changed normal interactions, she said.

Moore said she was originally concerned about her new roommates, but she has her own room and so she feels safe.

“I just want to start making friends,” she said with a laugh.

On Tuesday, Chancellor Donde Plowman called on students to be safe and responsible when coming back to campus. 

“We know students have missed their friends and they want to connect, but they have to do it safely,” Plowman said. 

‘I think there is a lot of anxiety’

Sarah Eldridge is an associate professor of German who is teaching all online classes this semester. She taught her first class on Wednesday and said it was mostly focused on making sure students understood the technology. 

“It was a little chaotic, but I think we’ll get into a rhythm,” Eldridge said. 

While she’s able to work from home this semester, she said she has concerns for employees who cannot. Eldridge is also the chapter vice president for the United Campus Workers union. 

“I think there is a lot of anxiety, and I think a lot of that is people who have to be on campus for one reason or another,” Eldridge said. 

From custodial staff who are working to keep the campus clean to professors who cannot teach virtually, Eldridge said she has concerns about their exposure to COVID-19. 

“You can make the classes as safe as you want, but you can’t control student behavior off campus,” Eldridge said. 

Cluster of cases stems from off-campus party

The day before classes began, UT announced it had traced its first cluster outbreak of COVID-19 to an off-campus party thrown by students. 

Plowman reacted swiftly, and told students there would be punishment for those who throw parties that do not follow guidelines or who do not cooperate with university contact tracers. 

“We will hold you responsible, and it’s possible that you could be expelled from school and I will not hesitate to do that if our students are irresponsible,” Plowman said on Tuesday. 

UT is expecting 29,000 students to be enrolled this semester, with approximately 6,500 students living on campus. UT has kept dorm occupancy low on purpose, and gave freshman students the option to live off campus. 

UT was using 24 of approximately 240 isolation beds as of Tuesday, Plowman said, with most students who are self-isolating returning home. As of Wednesday, there were 2,197 active COVID-19 cases in Knox County and 37,263 active cases in Tennessee.