To Chancellor Plowman and the UT Board of Trustees:
We are writing to express our dismay that the UT Knoxville administration is bringing a large number of students back to take classes on campus this spring. As you are of course aware, Knox County was recently declared by the CDC to be the very heart of the global outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, our county has recently experienced days of its highest death rates due to the pandemic. In addition, as recent news reports make clear, the arrival in Knox County of the far more contagious strain of this virus, recently found in Chattanooga, is imminent. We are concerned for the students; for the general population of Knoxville, especially its most vulnerable individuals; and for the faculty who have chosen to teach in the classroom this semester. But above all, we are concerned for those who have no choice about exposing themselves to this virus: the staff who must clean and perform maintenance in the residence halls, and must prepare food and otherwise work in close contact with students.
You may recall that we raised concerns about bringing students back to Knoxville this fall 2020, in a letter to Dr. Martha Buchanan, Director of the Knox County Board of Health. For a posted copy of this letter, please see:
Since that time, the situation has become far more dire in our county, state, and country. A January 8 report of the Centers for Disease Control found that for U.S. counties with large universities, those with remote instruction experienced a 17% decline in COVID rates, whereas those with in-person instruction experienced a 56% increase in COVID rates, comparing the three week periods around the start date of classes: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7001a4.htm?s_cid=mm7001a4_w
We ask you to postpone the return of students until the rate of infection has fallen significantly. Please note that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has just decided that going wholly online for several weeks is the only judicious action to take at this time, given rates of infection in their area; and our rates are indeed worse:
We also request that the faculty and the staff at UT Knoxville be involved in a much more meaningful way in making such important decisions about health and safety on our campus in the future. We are convinced that until the danger has passed, the best way for our university to move forward in keeping with its institutional values is to postpone the arrival of our students to campus.
Members of the Executive Committee of the
UTK Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)
The UTK Chapter of United Campus Workers (UCW)
UTK Chancellor Donde Plowman
UT Board of Trustees
Shawn Spurgeon, President, UTK Faculty Senate
The Knoxville News Sentinel
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Inside Higher Ed