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A year ago, COVID-19 brought unexpected change to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. On March 23, 2020, the university moved all classes online, canceled events, and closed residence halls to stop the spread of the virus.

A year later, students, faculty, and staff remain committed to their work. Their dedication, campus leadership, and the ongoing effort to provide COVID-19 vaccines are propelling the university forward.

Setting the Tone

In the early days of the pandemic, Chancellor Donde Plowman set the tone for the university’s response to the virus. She challenged leadership to be creative, compassionate, and flexible.

“When we set these values, it gave people something to hold on to. I wasn’t the only one making decisions, and we had to move quickly,” Plowman said. “These values give a guide to people because there were so many others in the university who had to make decisions. We were all making decisions we’ve never made before, but I felt if we make them using these three values, we can’t go wrong.”

The chancellor said the university also had to communicate quickly and effectively. The university has provided consistent outreach to the campus community since last year, including the chancellor’s weekly COVID-19 updates.

“We started them in an attempt to be transparent, but it really invited people into the mind of the decision-maker and why we’re doing the things we were doing,” Plowman said. “I heard from people in the community who said they were watching. I think it made us more accessible. What our team did, and what we accomplished, was pretty big.”

Students Overcome Challenges

Claire Donelan
Claire Donelan. Photo by Robyn Helms.

Claire Donelan, a junior from Fairfield, Connecticut, studying marketing, was in London, England, in March 2020 when the university suspended study abroad programs. She was four days into an internship when she returned home.

“That definitely changed a couple of things professionally for me, just because I was going to use the internship to talk about in interviews—it was going to be a really great experience, it was going to help me feel out what I wanted to do for my future career,” Donelan said.

Back in Knoxville, she remains active with several organizations, including the Student Government Association and her sorority. She is also a campus tour guide.

Like other students, Donelan adjusted as her classes shifted online. She said she feels Zoom fatigue and the impacts of a virtual world on her mental health. She confided in other students and led programming for SGA in an effort to help herself and others. Donelan has pushed through the challenges and remains committed to her studies.

“UT is more than just a degree,” she said. “It’s the network that you get, it’s the connections that are provided for me here. It’s the fact that anywhere I go chances are someone is going to be a UT fan, someone is going to know who the Volunteers are.”

Preparing for Uncertainty

After the spring 2020 semester shifted online, the university prepared to safely welcome students back to campus for fall 2020. Steve Smith, dean of libraries, served as co-chair of the Re-Imagining Fall Task Force alongside Ellen McIntyre, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Services. The task force engaged faculty, staff, and students across campus and created a series of recommendations for reopening. Smith also served as special advisor to the chancellor for COVID-19 response. He said there were many unknowns at that time.

“I think one of the challenges was the sheer volume of work that had to be done in the face of lots of uncertainty,” Smith said.

Steven Smith
Steve Smith, dean of libraries

That work included outfitting classrooms with technology that allowed for online and hybrid learning and training faculty how to use it. Smith said learning the new technology was one of many difficulties faculty faced.

“I think they also were struggling with uncertainty. You know, they care about their students. Whenever I talked to faculty it was so evident that, whether they were teaching face to face, all online, or something in between, faculty were really concerned about the welfare of their students, and they wanted to help however they could.”

Keeping Campus Open and Safe

Supporting students meant keeping campus open and safe. Smith said those were top priorities for the university. “One of the things I’m proudest of is that we committed to keep it going, and we kept it going,” he said.

To ensure the safety of students and employees, the university had to create a contact tracing program and widespread COVID-19 testing, including a community saliva testing program. Dr. Spencer Gregg is the director of the Student Health Center and the incident commander of the university’s pandemic response. “Neither of those two programs, the campus testing program nor the contact tracing program, had ever been done on this campus,” he said. “We had to build those from the ground up.”

UT Joins Vaccination Effort

UT also joined the statewide effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. The university applied to be a vaccine distributor with the State of Tennessee and contacted the Knox County Health Department to offer its services before vaccines started shipping across the country.

“When it came time to distribute vaccines, we volunteered to make our staff and our facilities available to the public for as long as it takes to defeat this virus,” Plowman said.

Dr. Spencer Gregg
Dr. Spencer Gregg, director of UT’s Student Health Center, at a vaccination distribution on February 5, 2021.

Vaccinations began on campus with health care workers and first responders.

“We thought that providing vaccines on campus would be one of the best ways for us to be able to show that we were encouraging people to receive it and that we thought it was a safe and effective step for them to take,” Gregg said.

The university is committed to offering as many vaccines as it can to members of the campus community and to the people who call East Tennessee home.

Couple in their 90s Vaccinated at UT

Ruth Connelly, 90, and her partner, Asa LaFara, 95, both of Knoxville, ran into roadblocks when trying to sign up for vaccine appointments.

“I followed every lead I could find. Never could get on a waiting list,” Connelly said. “Everything was filled—no matter where I called, what time of day or night, everything was filled.”

She and LaFara called local doctors’ offices, health departments, clinics, and pharmacies before they finally secured appointments at UT.

The couple received their second doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a public clinic held on campus Friday, March 12. Connelly said she felt relieved.

“I am feeling a huge—like a huge—burden has been lifted off my shoulder,” she said. “It’s been a year of tension, and worry, and isolation, and frustration. It’s just—all of that was lifted the day I walked out of the Student Union.”

Providing vaccines on such a large scale is a campus-wide endeavor, and Gregg said he appreciates the numerous departments and volunteers that contribute to the effort to help people such as Connelly and LaFara.

At a recent vaccination clinic, one recipient welled up in tears before getting his vaccine. He explained that he had been hospitalized, and COVID protocols meant he’d had little contact with loved ones for three months. He was thankful the vaccine could help him return to some normalcy.

“That is very rewarding to me that we were able to help someone that was in such need of what we had to offer,” Gregg said.

Planning for a Full In-Person Experience in Fall 2021

Students-walk-toward-Pedestrian-WalkwayCiting growing vaccine availability and encouraging COVID-19 case numbers, the university announced plans to offer a full in-person campus experience for fall 2021. That includes teaching in classrooms at full capacity, returning to normal campus housing, and offering a comprehensive slate of student events and programming.

The university will continue to monitor COVID-19 data and follow health guidance. Gregg said everyone must stay vigilant, especially as COVID-19 variants circulate. “It’s easy for us to take all this positive information and begin to get at ease, and we cannot afford to do that.”

He said it is important to continue prevention efforts, like hand washing, mask wearing, and staying socially distant. Gregg said even those who are fully vaccinated need to follow the safety guidelines.

The fall announcement was welcome news for Donelan, who hopes for a senior year that looks more familiar. “Going to class and seeing all my friends in class was a huge part of my day and something that I loved about school,” she said.

Pandemic Brings Lasting Change

Some changes brought on by the pandemic will continue, especially in the classroom. Smith said instructors are learning to harness technology in a more effective way. “I don’t think teaching is ever going to be the same,” he said.

“We will return to a face-to-face model, but one of the benefits is that we will be able to be much more flexible, and many more faculty than before will be able to utilize a wider range of technology options to augment and enhance the learning experience for our students.”

Smith and Gregg both said the pandemic response allowed them to connect with people on campus they never would have met otherwise. “That has been incredibly refreshing—to be able to step outside of that normal place that I fit and take on a larger role that allowed me to have those kinds of interactions, and now develop those kinds of relationships, that I otherwise would not have had,” Gregg said.

Plowman said the pandemic taught everyone on campus how to deal with uncertainty. “We’re hoping for a fall that is COVID-free, but we don’t know exactly what will happen in the future. Let’s be optimistic, but let’s also recognize the tools we have that we didn’t have before.”


Lisa Leko (865-974-8698,