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Letter to Chancellor Plowman Regarding Masks

The following was just sent (Friday 12.3.21 around 10:30 am) to Chancellor Plowman and Provost Zomchick on behalf of UCW and the UTK AAUP:

Dear Chancellor Plowman,

We are writing to request that the UT Knoxville campus follow CDC guidelines regarding masking indoors, reinstate the mask mandate, and allow those who can to work remotely, immediately, in the interest of keeping our campus safe from COVID. The CDC currently recommends that everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission wear a mask in public indoor places, even if they are fully vaccinated. Moreover, in Knox County, the CDC reports that the average positivity rate is 8.22% (high transmission), and the TN Department of Health reports that the percent of vaccination among eligible individuals is only 55% in Knox County. You have continuously said that you would follow CDC guidelines. Thus, we ask that you immediately require masks indoors on campus and allow remote work until community transmission is low. 

On December 1, the mask mandate was lifted even as final exams begin on December 3. Many campus workers and students interact with co-workers and students in indoor spaces. Facilities staff, who work in person to perform their job duties, are more at risk for exposure from unmasked and unvaccinated students. Administrative staff could work remotely to stay safe and lessen our campus transmission rates. Many instructors administer final exams that require in-person testing in rooms that do not allow for distancing. In many cases, hundreds of students will be shoulder-to-shoulder in large lecture halls with students from other sections. Even though this constitutes an unsafe learning environment, Provost Zomchick communicated that students without accommodations from Student Disability Services must test in-person. Given that exams begin today, this is an untenable timeline for students to get accommodations.

By ignoring CDC guidelines in areas with a high rate of COVID positivity, the University is complicit in creating unsafe learning and working environments for students, staff and faculty, especially those at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or with loved ones who are more at risk. A fully-vaccinated Tennessee university professor died last week of COVID. Moreover, the Omicron variant has been detected in fully vaccinated people in the U.S., indicating that current vaccines may be less effective against the new variant. Given the uncertainty of the vaccines’ ability to fight this variant, it is especially important now to follow CDC guidelines, reinstate the mask mandate, and allow those who can to work remotely to keep our campus safe.


Mia Romano, MFLL; Chapter President of UTK United Campus Workers

Anne Langendorfer, English; President, United Campus Workers of Tennessee 

Mary McAlpin, MFLL; President of the UTK AAUP Chapter