In May, Jed Diamond planned to continue teaching at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in the fall, but he started to rethink his decision when COVID-19 cases climbed during the summer.
Diamond, a theater professor, and many of his colleagues had the same idea in early August – to transition fully to remote learning. Colleges across the country are choosing to go online using a hybrid model, learning remotely temporarily or staying home for the entire fall semester.
Diamond composed a letter to the Knox County Health Department Director Martha Buchanan and UT Chancellor Donde Plowman with the help of the American Association of University Professors and United Campus Workers Knoxville chapters.
He still hasn’t heard back.
Diamond described early August on campus as “a lot of turmoil.”
Professors including Diamond changed their minds and asked to move their classes online. UT officials were hoping to follow through with their original plan of holding at least 50% of classes in-person with face-to-face or hybrid instruction.
Officials agreed to work with professors requesting to move to online classes, but there was still a looming dread among faculty and staff of students’ return to campus, Diamond said.
“There are a lot of us that felt that returning as we’ve seen at so many other campuses was inescapably, unavoidably and inevitably going to cause significant increases in the virus in this area and on campus,” Diamond told Knox News.
Diamond took his concerns to UT’s American Association of University Professors chapter. Chapter president Monica Black, who is a history professor at UT, heard him loud and clear.
“We don’t necessarily have a way to communicate our point of view about the pandemic and how it’s being handled by the university,” Black said. “We don’t really have a way of communicating that to the larger public, except through a mechanism like a letter.”
‘It was read and buried’
Diamond and leaders of Knoxville’s AAUP and United Campus Workers came together on Aug. 11 to write a letter to Buchanan and Plowman, asking the Knox County Health Department to strongly recommend that UT move to online instruction for some or all of the fall semester, or until the infection rate in the county is “under sufficient control.”
Within two days, 230 people, including faculty, staff, alumni and students, signed the letter, and it was sent to Buchanan and Plowman. An additional 21 people signed by Aug. 14.
Black said that Buchanan acknowledged the letter but has yet to respond to the request. Diamond believes that “it was read and buried.”
UT spokesperson Tyra Haag confirmed that a copy of the letter was received by Plowman’s office.Charity Menefee, the health department’s director of emergency preparedness, told Knox News on Tuesday recommendations of that nature are the responsibility of the Board of Health, which sets policy for the pandemic response. The letter, she said, was shared with the Board of Health.
“The board will continue to look at the situation and what’s happening in the area as they see appropriate,” Menefee said.
Plowman, the UT chancellor, didn’t get to questions during Tuesday’s campus COVID-19 briefing. A university spokeswoman told Knox News she was following up on the issue and would respond when she had more information.
Black and Diamond, meanwhile, are taking it one day at a time and watching the numbers.
“Our leaders have been doing a fantastic job. They’ve been really working incredibly valiantly,” Diamond said. “I have nothing but admiration and respect for them, but there’s a difference of opinion on what is the safest course of action and what is realistic.”
Could UT be like UNC?
Diamond added three lines to the end of his letter, mentioning the actions taken at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in hopes that Buchanan would follow suit.
UNC opened Aug. 10 with hybrid classes, and a week later the school abandoned its plan and went completely remote.
The health director in Orange County, where UNC is located, urged the school to shift to virtual classes for a minimum of five weeks if not the entire semester in a July 29 memo. Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and the Town Council emailed a letter to university officials, saying they had failed to take responsibility for students’ off-campus behavior, the same afternoon that UNC announced it would be going online.
Diamond argues that UT’s situation is gravely similar.
UNC reported 135 cases and six clusters within seven days of opening. UT identified 136 active cases and one cluster in five days after opening for the fall.
Case numbers aren’t the only comparable data. About 30,101 students attend UNC, and there are approximately 3,887 faculty. At UT, there are 29,460 students and 1,586 faculty.
Dorms at UNC were capped at 65% capacity, whereas UT limited dorm capacity to 75-80%.
Orange County spokesman Todd McGee told WRAL-TV in Raleigh that the county has the power to force the university to shut down but was not pursuing the process because of its complexity. The Knox County Health Department has the same authority under the Tennessee Code and Rules of the Tennessee Department of Health but, like Orange County officials, is unlikely to exercise it.
UT has presented several contingency plans, including the suspension of in-person classes, but university officials have not announced any plans to transition to remote learning for an extended period of time.
“We can make everybody coming back work. It’s just a difference of opinion about whether we can accept the level of illness and mortality,” Diamond said. “This is a hard damn decision to make.”
Email Allie Clouse at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @allie_clouse. If you enjoy Allie’s coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.