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Re-Imagining Fall Task Force Report

Message from Chancellor Plowman

In just four weeks, the Re-Imagining Fall Task Force brought together a broad range of expertise from across campus to generate and consider creative ideas that will serve as a meaningful launching point for more detailed conversations about how to move forward.

I would like to thank the members of the task force and subcommittees for the extensive time and work they put into this thorough report on considerations and recommendations for how we can re-imagine our fall semester. I would also like to thank Deans Ellen McIntyre and Steve Smith for their leadership of the task force.

The work that the task force and its subcommittees have done will provide an important foundation for the deliberations and decisions to come as we move toward safely and effectively continuing our work of educating students, conducting research, and serving our communities this fall.

Key takeaways are posted below, and the complete report is available for download.

In the coming days, the senior leadership team and I will work with leaders across campus to collect feedback and begin prioritizing recommendations. For each of the six topics—teaching and student success, workplace safety, residence halls and student spaces, research and graduate studies, visitors to campus, and community outreach and engagement—I will identify a leader to help us consider the feasibility of the ideas and the resources needed to carry them out.

We are committed to keeping our campus community informed and engaged as we make decisions and work together to implement them.

Key Takeaways

The COVID-19 outbreak has presented unprecedented challenges for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as well as for all of higher education.

Early in this crisis, Chancellor Donde Plowman asked the campus to join her in these commitments as we move forward:

  • Keep our community healthy and hopeful
  • Keep our students on track toward success
  • Be creative. Be compassionate. Be flexible.

The task force offers this report in the spirit of these commitments.

On April 17, the chancellor commissioned the Re-Imagining Fall Task Force, co-chaired by Steven Smith, dean of libraries, and Ellen McIntyre, dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, to make recommendations on “how and when we return to campus and what campus we want to be when we return.” Further, the chancellor stated that the task force’s recommendations would help the campus in “developing a plan for the safe and effective resumption of classes, activities, and operations relating to various scenarios” for the fall 2020 semester.

The task force was given these three scenarios:

Scenario 1: We reconvene face to face with students for the fall semester, either at the planned time of August 19 or perhaps a few weeks later, but with modifications to our typical practices.

Scenario 2: We reconvene face-to-face with students for the fall semester, but then a sudden outbreak or spike of COVID-19 cases requires us to move back to a remote learning environment.

Scenario 3: Students do not return to campus for the fall semester, and we use a virtual learning environment for the entire fall semester.

As the chancellor stated in an April 20 message to the task force, all three scenarios are necessary, though the first represents the campus’s preferred option. Since that time, both the system and the campus have formally announced their intentions to reconvene with students on campus. But a surge in cases or a change in other circumstances over the summer or during the fall could require a move to either the second or the third scenario, or a variation on them. Even without a surge, we must plan to protect vulnerable individuals or populations who may need a remote work environment or other accommodation for some time.

The task force was asked to answer two questions for each of the scenarios:

  1. What are the major considerations for planning this scenario?
  2. What recommendations do you have for increasing safety, agility, and effectiveness relating to each subcommittee topic?

Chancellor Plowman designated critical topic areas for the task force, around which six subcommittees were organized. For each of these topic areas, the subcommittees were asked to address the following points, without limitation.

Workplace Safety

  • Work/office spaces
  • Telecommuting
  • Scheduling
  • Considerations for vulnerable employees
  • Safety equipment or materials
  • Employee health and wellness
  • Technology and design

Teaching and Student Success

  • Curriculum
  • Online learning and teaching
  • Academic policies
  • Differentiating the student experience
  • Holistic student support
  • Incoming students

Residence Halls and Student Spaces

  • Residence hall capacity and rooming considerations
  • COVID-19 illness
  • Dining
  • Student gatherings/events
  • Health and wellness

Research and Graduate Studies

  • Conducting research
  • Graduate programs
  • Graduate student supervision

Visitors to Campus

  • Fall athletic events
  • Non-athletic events
  • Health monitoring
  • Campus tours
  • Visiting faculty

Outreach and Engagement

  • Community and state recovery assistance
  • Public engagement
  • Land grant mission
  • Considerations for vulnerable employees

With chairs drawn from the task force, subcommittees were populated with both task force and non-task force members. Additionally, a committee of experts in student success, health, economics, medicine, and science was established to advise the task force. In total, more than 80 individuals participated in the overall task force effort, with membership representing expertise in a wide array of areas, each of the colleges, and a balance between faculty, staff, and administration.

Further, the task force solicited stakeholder feedback through a survey deployed to the community in April. More than 900 responses were collected, analyzed, and shared with the members of the task force. The task force also created a resource page for posting articles, reports, scientific studies, white papers, guidelines, and other content for the use of the task force. All members of the task force group were also invited to a series of six lunchtime enrichment sessions for presentations and Q&A with experts drawn from the task force advisory committee.

The chancellor set May 18, 2020, as the deadline for the task force report.

The task force’s charge was specific and focused. We were neither asked to choose, rank, or evaluate scenarios, nor were we asked to propose “one-size-fits-all” solutions. We were not asked to produce campus, college, departmental, or unit level plans.

Rather, we were asked to propose recommendations to inform and guide planning to increase safety, agility, and effectiveness of all campus operations and activities. We embraced our charge knowing that not all of our recommendations will ultimately be adopted. Throughout our deliberations, we sought to be innovative and inclusive. The fluid nature of the challenge we face means that today’s great idea could be outmoded or made moot by new circumstances tomorrow. Therefore, flexibility and adaptability are paramount. Planners and decision-makers at all levels must evaluate and consider the applicability of any recommendation, in coordination with colleagues and supervisors, as they chart the course forward in their areas.

The task force acknowledges that planning at many levels is already underway. The ongoing and fluid nature of this challenge requires many parts of the university to plan and act in parallel rather than move in a strictly linear, centrally-driven process. Nevertheless, coordination and accountability remain vital.

The plans the university makes to meet this challenge will likely impact every aspect of campus life–from the way classes are taught and delivered to the conduct of research, scholarship, and creative activity to interactions in campus gathering spaces to the operation of food and dining facilities to our practices for bringing visitors to campus to the kinds of events we host and how those events are experienced, and more. This will not be a “normal” fall term, and, even in the best case, many of the changes implemented could persist into the spring and possibly longer.

Success in meeting the challenges of this crisis will require both boldness and a generosity of spirit in caring for our students, one another, and the broader Volunteer community. Success will also require maximum creativity and flexibility in all our plans and decisions.

Download the complete report (PDF)

The task force offers the following as a short list of guiding principles to all members of the Volunteer community. Incorporating these principles into our planning and implementation will help harmonize efforts and ensure decisions at every level promote safety, agility, and effectiveness in the best interests of students, faculty, and staff.

Informed by Guidelines: We recommend that all decisions be informed by guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), local and state mandates, and documents prepared for addressing the crisis in higher education, such as the American College Health Association’s (ACHA) “Guidelines on Reopening Campuses,” the Global Center for Health Security’s,“Higher Education COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Checklist,” and the University of Tennessee President’s Re-Opening Task Force’s “Best Practices for Re-opening Campuses.”

Commitment to Land Grant Mission: We recommend that decisions made from this plan honor our mission to provide access to quality education to Tennesseans and renew our community-focused orientation. The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated issues and shared interests that may serve to strengthen partnerships in the state, specifically the East Tennessee region, in service of solving the very real problems our communities face.

Commitment to Student Success: Our commitment to student success is inextricably intertwined with our land grant mission and with who we are as Volunteers. Throughout this crisis, we must remain focused on delivering a quality learning experience to our students. The lessons our undergraduates and graduate students learn here transform lives–their own, those of their families, those with whom they will work, and those that they will serve. This crisis cannot compromise our abiding commitment to their educational, career, and life success.

Commitment to Shared Governance: We must remain committed to processes that are inclusive and representative of all stakeholders. Decisions by campus leadership, faculty, staff, and students should be made collaboratively and in the best interests of the entire campus, in accordance with all relevant rules, regulations, and policies. In the interest of safety or in response to other critical circumstances, some decisions may require quick action by leadership with abbreviated consultation. All permanent decisions pertaining to instruction and pedagogy are the prerogative of the faculty, as outlined in the Faculty Handbook and the Faculty Senate Bylaws.

Concern for Vulnerable Populations: We recommend the university continue to make the safety of the students, staff, and faculty its first priority. In doing so, we suggest making online classes available to students who choose not to be on campus and to faculty who are unable to teach in-person. We must continue to provide remote work options for staff who are not able to work on campus.

Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: We are all in this together. All Vols includes students, staff, faculty, and community who are with us in person and online. Our work to meet the current challenge must be guided by a commitment to working together as a campus community to create environments in which all Vols thrive and dare to act on behalf of others. We recognize members of our community experience different challenges associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. Now more than ever, we must be bold in our support for diversity, equity, and inclusion to ensure that our plans and decisions foster an environment of care and belonging for all.

Download the complete report (PDF)

The following high-level recommendations apply to all future scenarios.

Develop and deploy a campaign to encourage adherence to safety and health practices and guidelines: We recommend a broad, multi-pronged, well-crafted education, communication, and marketing effort to encourage adherence to guidelines and rules protecting and promoting good health. Compliance will best be achieved by creating an environment where individuals choose to comply because they understand both how and why compliance is important. Through these efforts, UT will not only promote better health practices on campus but could set a positive example for the state and nation.

Keep listening to the Volunteer community: We recommend that the university continue to assess stakeholders’ concerns and interests throughout the summer and fall of 2020. There are many ways to engage with and hear from our community, and doing so would help provide leadership and others with “real-time” information regarding the Volunteer community’s intentions, expectations, and concerns. We suggest the administration continue to make decisions informed by feedback from the Volunteer community, broadly construed–students, potential students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni, friends, supporters, and all who feel a connection to our university. Further, we must continue to work to insure we are listening to all voices to support and advance our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and engagement

Continue to encourage leadership at all levels: We are all leaders. Success will require unprecedented support from everyone–faculty, staff, students, alumni, administrators, friends and supporters, and more. Leadership at the top is critical, but the examples we set for one another, for those individuals we see and work with regularly, are just as crucial at this time. Regardless of the scenario, meeting and overcoming current challenges will depend in large measure on countless daily decisions and actions taken by individuals as they go about their regular routines in offices, classrooms, laboratories, workspaces, and other areas across campus and remotely.

Continue to engage and build partnerships at the local, state, and national levels: We recommend continued robust and coordinated engagement with community members and leaders beyond our campus. Regardless of the scenario we find ourselves facing, goodwill, support, and trust will be required for success. As in other recommendations above, we must be expansive in our engagement with those beyond our campus boundaries. In particular, building and sustaining our strategic partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has never been more important. The combined strengths and resources of UT and ORNL are able to serve as force multipliers for addressing this crisis, as well as ongoing and as yet unknown global challenges that can have, as we have learned, significant impacts for localities everywhere.

Develop processes for and clearly communicate next steps and ongoing planning and implementation processes: We recommend transparency in all planning and decision-making processes. All communications should clearly describe decision-making processes, lines of authority, and loci of accountability/responsibility as well as expectations and mechanisms for collaboration and shared governance, reporting-out, and information-sharing. The communication about decisions and planning should include, as appropriate, students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends, and supporters, as well as those in the local community, region, state, and nation.

Download the complete report (PDF)

Health and safety are the overriding themes for all subcommittee reports. In some instances, the connection to safety is obvious (more PPEs), while for others more remote (more online business and human resource functions). However, every recommendation, idea, suggestion, and proposal in some way ties to helping reduce or shield exposure to COVID-19.

  • Instruction in ways that mitigate disease spread (e.g., changes to the calendar, classroom practices and layout; increased training and support for online instruction) while supporting learning and student success runs through all the reports. The changes necessary to support effective instruction while guarding the health and safety of students and faculty will require substantial investments of time and resources, and maximum collaboration among faculty, administrators, and others (facilities, custodial, Office of Information Technology, Teaching and Learning Innovation, Student Success offices, libraries, etc.). If we are to rise to this challenge, we have no choice but to make the strategic investments of time, effort, and resources necessary to ensure our instructional mission not only continues but thrives.
  • Modifications to the built environment is a significant area of emphasis in the subcommittee report recommendations. Just a few of the many ideas proposed are signage, floor markings, wellness screens, retractable belt stanchions, bollards, new furniture layouts, bathroom fixtures, automatic doors, touch-free card swipe devices, and other changes to classrooms, workspaces, buildings, and even outdoor areas (e.g., one-way sidewalks) that promote social distancing, reduce the need to touch objects, and reduce instances of close contact between individuals.
  • Wide availability and appropriate inventory levels for personal protective equipment or PPEs (face masks, face shields, gloves, and in some cases gowns and other protective outerwear) are essential. The kinds of PPEs vary depending on differing factors such as job duties, job location, and other circumstances. At a minimum, everyone on campus will likely need a face mask.
  • The planning and protocols for testing, contact tracing, and isolation/quarantine spaces emerge as points of emphasis. Onsite testing is essential, but the reports also recognize that guidelines for best practices for testing and contact tracing are still being developed. Therefore, it will be important to monitor guidelines from the CDC, the ACHA, and others.

Communication and engagement are major areas of emphasis in all the reports. Ideas include:

  • Communication with students and families before the semester begins to explain and set expectations regarding the modified campus experience and environment for the fall, and perhaps longer, is vital. Communication with students and families during the fall should reinforce expectations, guide them successfully through the semester, and, to the extent possible, reassure them, building and strengthening relationships and connections.
  • Communication with faculty and staff is also of vital importance. Faculty and staff will need to understand procedures, policies, and expectations as they plan to return to work or continue to work remotely. Communication with all campus employees before and during the semester will be important not only for clarity around decisions, practices, and policies, but also to provide support and reassurance.
  • Communication with alumni, friends, supporters, local and state officials and other stakeholders is key to success in meeting this challenge regardless of the scenario and continuing to honor our land grant mission.
  • Our Volunteer Values should be emphasized in our communications to encourage good health practices and build positive bonds of connection between individuals and with the campus.
  • An important communication resource is the CDC’s “Communicating During an Outbreak or Public Health Investigation.”

Development and training are a major thematic emphasis, focused mainly in two areas:

  • Support is needed for faculty in the development and delivery of online instruction no matter which of the three scenarios we face. Successful learning through effective teaching in the technology enhanced realm is critical for the duration of this crisis, and likely longer. There is keen interest in expanding current training and resources for this training.
  • Regardless of the scenario, training for students, faculty, staff, and others in new and modified health risk mitigation practices is recommended. One idea, described more fully in this report, is to develop and deliver a Vols Protect Vols campaign that includes required training for all university employees that meets or exceeds CDC guidelines for washing hands, social distancing, wearing masks, and other safety enhancements and a 1-credit hour education course for students that does the same. Other examples of competency development are wide-ranging, including everything from how to run productive online meetings to using new apps or programs related to health and wellness to learning to use a fully online (i.e. completely paperless) business enterprise system (e.g., human resources, business, planning and logistics).

Greater flexibility in all areas, but perhaps most notably in policies, practices, and procedures, is an area of emphasis. Subcommittees expressed a corollary interest in the pursuit of greater efficiencies that will ease the completion of daily, routine tasks and better balance workloads.

  • Interest in flexible policies about where, when, and how all employees do their work is high. Any instructor or staff member with underlying health conditions or who lives with or cares for individuals in vulnerable populations should be allowed to teach or work remotely if at all possible through the fall. Similarly, latitude should also be given to instructors who prefer teaching f2f (with safety modifications) or hybrid. Whenever possible, students should be accorded the same flexibility in choosing how they want/need to take a class.
  • Financial aid and scholarships are areas in which greater flexibility is highly recommended, for example, in regards to financial assistance for part-time attendance, or for those who might want or need to take a semester off without risking the loss of aid.
  • Another area of emphasis pertains to flexible policies about residence hall, dining, and other contracts.
  • Flexibility and efficiencies in faculty workload, evaluation, enhancement of infrastructure for research, and collaborations across disciplines, departments, colleges, and otherwise are also important sub-themes.
  • One of the most critical matters with regard to flexibility and efficiency is an effective exceptions process to ensure decisions in appropriate areas remain fluid and based on the dynamics of the virus, new information, and other important factors. This process should be established well before the start of the fall semester and remain in place until campus leadership determines the process is no longer necessary. More specifically, a curricular exceptions process will also be necessary. If not already, campus leadership, in coordination with faculty and other stakeholders, should communicate now with our state and national accrediting agencies about course substitutions, calendar changes, and other matters so as not to adversely impact students in their academic progress.

The importance of planning and preparedness occur again and again throughout the reports, with strong encouragement for any areas that are not already planning to begin doing so now. Supervisors and others will need accurate guidance with clear expectations to ensure preparations proceed apace across all colleges, departments, units, and areas.

The campus as well as all colleges, departments, and units should prepare a flexible list of priority decisions and actions that should be accomplished and/or underway prior to the resumption of classes in the fall. The tools for department heads, developed by the Teaching and Student Success subcommittee for determining course delivery, format, and instructor preparedness should be distributed immediately.

The above summary describes major themes and points of emphasis throughout the reports, which contain many more ideas for enhancing safety, agility, and effectiveness than can be listed in this section. Again, for every idea mentioned here as well as all those in the reports, the unifying theme is the importance of health and safety, regardless of the scenario. Even those recommendations that at first do not seem related to disease mitigation (more online business processes, for example) are at their root motivated by safety because the more we can do online, the less we need to have close physical contact in the workspace.

No campus or organization has all the resources to implement every potentially beneficial idea. However, the more we can do to strategically enhance health and safety, the more we will mitigate risk while also easing minds and offering some measure of reassurance as we move forward, which is perhaps almost as important in these times of high stress and uncertainty.

Download the complete report (PDF)