UCW Demands UTK Implement Immediate Safety Measures to Stop Delta Spread

Knoxville TN - United Campus Workers of Tennessee’s UTK Chapter protests the Chancellor’s Flagship Address, Demanding Adequate COVID Safety Measures in the Face of Delta’s Wildfire Spread through Tennessee. 

Dozens of UTK staff, faculty and students protested Chancellor Plowman’s Flagship Address on September 21st, 2021, expressing mounting frustration at her mishandling of the COVID crisis on campus and refusal to acknowledge the desperate need for adequate safety measures. The university encourages COVID vaccinations and implemented a temporary masking mandate during the second week of classes, but despite the fact that Tennessee currently has the highest number of COVID cases per capita, many of the safety protocols implemented last year are no longer in place.

The protestors held signs with messages about protecting workers and students, with some asking for vaccine mandates. The group chanted that they wanted campus safety now, and many of them shared personal stories and concerns, even reading those that were shared anonymously. The rally started at the entrance to the Student Union and later moved to a courtyard where the Chancellor was hosting a gathering after her flagship address.

One Building Services custodian shared the following: “There are some employees working 26 days straight and others working 52-56 hour work weeks due to management's incompetence concerning the bowl and general football season which puts us at increased risk for COVID. The lack of care about this incident is deplorable. We were told Thursday of last week we would work until finished. Several people ended up with heat stroke and a few fell but they didn't care one bit.” UTK football games do not require masks, proof of vaccination, or proof of negative COVID tests, and increasing COVID spikes have occurred after every game. Knox County’s current daily average is more than it was at the height of last winter’s peak, with daily averages sometimes reaching more than 3 times that level. UTK’s current COVID policies reflect those of an institution with low community transmission and near total vaccination compliance; however, the TN Department of Health’s data shows 16-30 year olds’ vaccination rates hovering around 35%.

Staff and students are “burnt out and stretched thin;” here are just some of their words:

“My mental health has declined and I am resenting coming to work on campus to the point that I have considered leaving my job. It feels like the administration does not trust us to continue working remotely. It is unfair that students/staff have the choice of whether or not to get the vaccine but others do not have the choice to work remotely if it makes them feel safer. I have gotten sick since working on campus and am fearful of getting sick again.”

“Over a third of my department quit within the span of a summer, and I have heard many similar stories across campus. Another third of my department, including myself, are considering quitting because they feel unsafe with unnecessary exposure. We are complicit in putting our students at risk if we persist in gambling with our community’s health.”

“As an immunocompromised individual with a spouse on immunosuppressants, I am greatly concerned about doing the right thing when it comes to my and my family’s health. If we are to succeed at kicking Covid, we must all do the right thing: vaccinate, mask and distance. I urge the university to do the right thing, not the easy thing.”

“To say I feel betrayed would be an understatement.”

UCW’s petition demands are as follows:

  1. Require masks inside all university facilities, with exceptions only for private (closed door) offices, dorm rooms, and individual study rooms,

  2. Reinstall all the protective barriers, as well as social distancing and masking signage removed during the summer,

  3. Offer free PCR COVID testing and N95 or KN95 masks to the entire campus      community,

  4. Permit all faculty and graduate students to teach remotely and allow staff to work remotely wherever and whenever possible, and

  5. Provide hazard pay for the essential workers who keep our university working.

After the Address, UCW and AAUP members presented the petition for these safety measures to the Chancellor, with over 850 signatures collected, but she declined to take them. 

With hospitals over capacity, partially run by the national guard, no vaccination requirements, no weekly testing, and significant barriers to switching to virtual learning/working, UCW wants UTK to change course. As one rally protestor explained, magical thinking does not end COVID: active and adequate prevention efforts do. In the absence of a vaccine mandate, UCW’s petition demands that UTK implement the strongest possible measures against COVID. While many long to return to in-person face-to-face classes and work without restrictions, UCW does not want students, faculty and staff to get sick, contract long-Covid, or die in the process.