For immediate release
January 24, 2022
Campus Covid Crisis Endangers Our Faculty, Staff, Students, Administration, and the General Public: Professors Seek Compassion, Safety, and Better Communication
For a video version of this press release, please go here:
Two years ago, we learned about the first documented cases of Covid-19 in the United States. Two years later, as of this writing, Tennessee Tech has 255 reported active cases of Covid-19 among students, faculty, and staff, according to the university’s own Covid dashboard, which is based on voluntary self-reporting. The current positivity rate for Covid in Putnam County is over 40%, which means that almost half of the people tested for the virus have it; a safe level is considered less than 10%. At the same time, less than half of our region have received even one shot of the vaccine.
The Tennessee Tech chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) speaks out today in support of, and in solidarity with, everyone who works and studies on this campus during this unprecedented public health crisis. The chapter collectively expresses its principled dismay and genuine concern that our campus leadership has not responded responsibly to the current surge of Covid cases in our community. Since the pandemic began, we have seen our students and colleagues get sick, miss work or class, adapt to various teaching modalities, and some have even died from this virus.
In early January, when many of our local peer institutions delayed the start to the spring semester or switched temporarily to online learning, Tennessee Tech opened its spring semester on January 10th, one week earlier than had been our custom for decades, when we previously began the term after the MLK national holiday. Despite concerns about our shortened winter break and genuine anxiety about the safety of being fully open during the current Covid surge, the university decided to push forward without any substantive changes to its fully-open for in-person classes model that has been pursued since the Fall 2020 semester.
In recent communications from the university, we have been reminded of this stark reality: “Currently, all public universities in Tennessee are not allowed to implement mask or vaccination mandates under a recently passed state law.” Moreover, the university claims to follow the CDC advice about isolation and quarantine when a person is exposed, but in reality, we are not sufficiently encouraging or enforcing best practices. CDC guidelines depend on whether one is fully vaccinated (or not) and recommend the wearing of masks in case of exposure to Covid; yet faculty are asked questions by students about possible Covid exposure and are not allowed to either ask vaccination status or require masks.
There was a time when the teaching modality of a professor’s classroom could be seen as a matter of academic freedom, like the choice of the textbook, grading scale, attendance policy, or examination philosophy. Today, an “in-person or else” approach has become a political wedge issue, including the denial by some of the validity of vaccines or helpfulness of masks to mitigate the spread of disease. Even the decision to get tested at all is voluntary for members of the campus community. Although some online and livestream options are available, many faculty are required to teach in a classroom, if they want to teach at all. Even some faculty with documented health conditions who teach online livestream classes are expected to teach these online classes from their campus offices, instead of from home. Some of our most essential workers, such as food service and custodial workers, are not Tech employees due to outsourcing, are some of our lowest-paid and most vulnerable colleagues. This is also a challenging time for them.
We once again call on our campus administration, community leaders, and elected officials to reconsider the “business-as-usual” approach that has guided the pandemic response in Tennessee. For many of us in the campus community, with genuine health concerns that make simply doing our jobs a matter of life or death during this pandemic, we want to speak clearly on behalf of the lives and safety of our colleagues and students. We want our campus and community leaders to consider the moral implications of their decisions, even as some of the people with whom we share offices, conversations, and daily duties, continue to get sick and even die.
Contact: Andrew Smith, campus chapter President
Josie McQuail, campus chapter Vice President
American Association of University Professors