Faculty responses to new COVID policies

Meg Butler
Contributing Writer

Amid concerns over the Delta variant, The University of the South updated its policies regarding student and faculty behaviors and procedures surrounding COVID-19.

The changes have generated strong opinions from students and faculty alike, some claiming that the new policies are lacking caution towards the still-present danger of the virus. The new policies were announced via email by Vice-Chancellor Brigety on September 4 and include mandatory vaccinations by October 5, masking in indoor, public spaces (outside of one’s residence hall), a termination of surveillance testing, and a refund for the testing fee unvaccinated students acquired at the beginning of the semester. Students are eligible to apply for a vaccine exemption, and by NCAA regulations, student athletes will continue regular testing. The University will also not provide a quarantine space for COVID positive students.

Lastly, the University will no longer require that students leave campus to quarantine or isolate. Students who test positive for COVID-19 will need to decide whether they need to leave campus for treatment or convalescence, or if they are able to isolate in their rooms. The University will not provide quarantine or isolation space.

These new policies are less stringent than policies of the 2020-2021 academic year. Vice-Chancellor Brigety says in the email these changes were made after considering recent statements from the CDC stating that, “people who are vaccinated are at low risk of severe infection” and that “COVID-19 is likely to become endemic.”

VC Brigety finishes his last paragraph of the email by saying, “Collectively, we are going to have to learn to live with some degree of COVID-19 infection on campus by putting in place data-informed policies, by caring for ourselves as we care for one another, and by being resilient and flexible enough to pivot when conditions call for it.”

The vaccination requirement was enacted at the University just under two weeks after the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine on August 23. 92 percent of students, 96 percent of faculty, and 70 percent of staff are currently vaccinated, and most will be by October 5. Everyone in the Sewanee community required to get vaccinated had the opportunity to request a medical or religious exemption. The faculty held a meeting on September 6 following the release of the new policies. A common issue voiced at the meeting was a concern for the lack of student quarantine spaces and lack of testing.

Dr. Emily Puckette of the mathematics department says her “concern primarily is for students. And I think many, many faculty are concerned for the students because you are living in tight quarters, dining in one building, taking your mask off to eat there… and so my concern is for the students.” Puckette is less concerned about spread in her classroom, as she says, “In my classroom, I’m very rigorous about masking. If I see a nose appear, I’m on it.”

Faculty in the theatre, dance, and art departments say that they are also vigilant about masking to calm their anxiety about classroom spread.

An anonymous faculty member in the performing art departments is concerned about the lack of data in their particular situation, saying “the general lack of guidance leaves us to do all the research on our own… we reach out to our national colleagues but no one is in the situation we are in in Tennessee.” Tennessee ranks first in the country for new COVID-19 cases per capita.

The protocol for students who are quarantining from class varies by professor. Most faculty agree that Zooming students into class will no longer be a regular practice.

Dr. Lauryl Tucker, in the English department, has constructed a note-taking system to supplement missing classes: “I’ve organized my classes into pods of notetakers who will keep track of what happens in class and record key points or questions… they’re in groups of three. If you miss class you have two peers who have recorded their impressions and written down what happened. At the end of class, I ask my students, ‘What do we want our absent colleagues to know?’”

Other professors say they prefer recording classes and posting these recordings along with handouts on Brightspace. Professors often work with each student on a case-by-case basis, relying heavily on one-to-one catch-up meetings.

Similar to the student body, faculty share a concern about the lack of transparency surrounding what body makes the decisions about University COVID policies. No interviewed professor was made aware of the sources the administration or the Vice-Chancellor solicited while developing the new policies.

“I don’t know exactly who was making these policies…the Vice-Chancellor certainly meets with the cabinet, but I don’t know the representation on the cabinet,” says Puckette, “No governing body of students or faculty were asked for input.”

During the meeting that the faculty and staff held following the release of the new policies, Tucker says that “one of the main concerns that we tried to raise was the lack of transparency about these choices. We asked: ‘What kind of medical advice did you take before you decided on this course?’ And it was difficult to get a clear picture.”

Faculty have been engaging in constant discourse about what precautions to take and what methods they are each using. “I am just grateful to my colleagues,” says Tucker, “for their reflection on this moment.”