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A Balancing Act: Health and Safety vs. the Budget – TNN 3

The New Normal Part 3
The New Normal Part 3

This is the third installment in The New Normal, a series about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on Kentucky businesses and organizations. Check out the previous installments here.

Listen along to this article by pressing play.

Do you remember DBQs from like fifth grade? Document Based Questions. You had to review some picture or some text and then think critically about it with an open response question. Let’s play a game and do a DBQ. Below are two quotes from two news outlets, one day apart:

“Classes begin today at the University of Kentucky. UK continues to test all 30,000 students for COVID-19, so far 147 have tested positive. The University is offering a mix of in-person, online, and hybrid classes.” – WKYT News, August 17th, 2020

“Some educators have talked about a kind of nightmare scenario. This is a scenario where a college opens, then students get sick, then they have to immediately close. This is not just an imaginary scenario, this is exactly what happened at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was open for a week and in that week 130 students and 5 employees tested positive and yesterday UNC said it is moving to online learning.” – NPR’s Up First, August 18th, 2020

Based on the information provided in the documents, what do you think will happen at the University of Kentucky at some point after August 18th?

To be honest, this is the installment in the series I’m most excited and also scared to write about. There are SO many opinions surrounding higher education and COVID and so many different paths institutions have gone down. If you had asked me two weeks ago what my opinions were they probably are different than what they are today. Hell, I bet they’re different between when I’m writing this and when you’re reading it. But my opinions don’t really matter too much, because we wanted to hear from the source. We wanted to talk to the people whose literal daily lives and wellbeing are being impacted at the University of Kentucky this semester. A college campus is kind of like a bubble already, so we wanted to talk to people in it to determine if that bubble is staying clean during the pandemic.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we tried several times to talk to a spokesperson for the University. We were able to engage with UK PR & Marketing directly when putting this series together but no statement was sent or time to speak scheduled. So, I guess I get to be a big boy journalist and say they “refused to comment for this story.” But, of course we didn’t give up there, we knew someone who would talk to us.

“It sucks man,” was Kash Daniel’s official statement to us. “I don’t want to make this sound like a pity party or anything, but it kind of ruined my chance at a hopeful, you know, NFL shot. We didn’t get a Pro Day, we were in the middle of our Pro Day training and that was the best shape I’ve ever been in in my life, and then that was it. Couldn’t do it.”

The former UK Football linebacker has been pretty vocal about the impact of COVID on athletes of all levels on Twitter. The winter sport season was cut short last year and spring sports were cancelled all together, creating a career-ending reality for so many student athletes whose lives revolve around their on-field performance. Kash’s biggest fear is that the same reality is going to hit football this fall and hurt his former teammates in similar ways to how it hurt him. He’s still in touch with some guys on the team and things are looking pretty different there now as the team tries to battle potential outbreaks while still adequately preparing for a packed SEC schedule.

Kash Daniel, with a mask

Kash Daniel, with a mask

“I wouldn’t want to be in there. I know that it’s, it’s so weird,” Kash put it bluntly. “They have to go in there, I think by position group, like to the locker room, just to even get changed. Guys are having to wait outside and then they go in and change and they come back out. They’re doing virtual meetings. They’ve not been able to get the strength and conditioning like we used to. When they are able to work out, I know that they had to do groups of eight and they were only in there for like an hour tops, a year ago we were there for two and a half, three hours a day.”

That training reality really concerns Kash. By nature no team is able to prepare for the season this year like they’ve been able to in years past and that modified preparation is making for an interesting season to say the least. “I’m actually really anxious to see the overall athleticism and strength and size of these dudes this year and what they’re able to do. I’m wondering without that gruesome grind what kind of effect that has on players’ performance. Overall, it’s, it’s just, it’s a weird time that, you know, luckily that I’m so glad I’m not in.”

While I could never play on an SEC football team, that last sentence hits me and I think it’s one everybody who recently went to college can relate with. Even off the field it’s a “really weird time” too for all college students and it’s a time that every institution is handling differently. Let’s not bury the lead here: colleges are making their decisions because of money. It’s that simple. Of course precautions are being taken and the safety of students, faculty, and staff are gigantic considerations but to be clear that’s not the top priority, no matter what the press releases may say. I could write a whole book about higher education in the US and the exponentially ballooning budgets whose costs are increasingly getting transferred to students and private donors. We’ll save that analysis for another day, but the reality is that colleges need money and if they don’t at least try to open in-person then they can’t justify costs and they won’t get the money. Period.

So with that in mind, as UK wrapped up its completely virtual spring semester it set its sights to figuring out how to reopen in person this fall. Back in April they had the New York Times sit in on planning meetings where three work groups consisting of various stakeholders ranging from students to executives thought through all types of scenarios for bringing people back to campus. Final information wasn’t decided on until June when the University released its official Fall 2020 Playbook. After everything shook out, here’s where things landed:

  • There’s no fall break this year and finals are online after Thanksgiving to avoid “there and back” travel exposure issues
  • Blanket testing was conducted upon arrival to campus for those who live on-campus
  • Certified tests  from within 7 days of arriving had to be submitted for students living off-campus
  • Daily self symptom assessments are required for all, with reporting done via an app
  • All students received a kit of PPE
  • Enhanced sanitation and space modifications to promote distancing in dining, living, and learning spaces
  • Some classes are partially in-person and partially online and some classes are fully online

Kentucky spent north of $5 million in preparation for this semester with a large variety of PPE, test units, temporary plexiglass walls, hand sanitizer stations, outdoor gathering spots, and more. If you read through the Playbook, a theme becomes clear. UK expects a culture of concern, accountability, and shared responsibility. They set the community up for success, but they expect everyone to fall in line, act safely, and ensure others around them are doing so as well. For some, that abdication of responsibility is simply not enough.

UK staff installing plexiglass barriers

UK staff installing plexiglass barriers

Khari Gardner is a senior at UK and is the founder of Movement for Black Lives. He’s been in the news a lot recently for putting up banners across campus and speaking out vocally against some University policies. We caught up with him shortly after what you could call a Twitter fight between his organization’s account and the official UK account. Khari was arguing that the University’s reopening plan lacked enough action to ensure the community continued to be protected throughout the semester. After a back and forth where the University account attempted to poke extremely technical logical fallacies into Khari’s tweets they responded with the following:

I immediately took screenshots because I thought there was no way it would remain up for long. But despite massive blowback and overwhelming calls for the account to explain itself, it’s still up there.

“Jay Blanton sent me an email,” Khari said, “you know an apology, and basically came off to the point where ‘sorry you took it that way, we never wanted you to take it that way’ but not sorry for saying it. I made it clear that the apology means nothing until more steps are taken to protect students.”

I asked Khari specifically what UK could be doing differently and he mentioned a couple things. First, he thought the fact that the decision whether a class is online vs. in-person (or a hybrid) was up to individual professors was idiotic: “You have students who have mostly online classes, but they have to come to campus because one professor decided they want their class in-person.” Second, UK’s testing policies irked him and was the main point of contention between him and the University. With all students tested on or shortly before arrival to campus, the goal was to create a semi-bubble. But with faculty and staff not being required to be tested, and students only required to be tested once, can that bubble be maintained or even truly established? UK’s argument is that faculty and staff largely live within the Lexington community so they are less likely to spread the virus to the community than students traveling to Lexington from around the country. Well, we know enough about the virus and the fact that it’s in Lexington to realize that argument doesn’t really hold water.

“There’s plenty of people sick in Lexington,” Matt Heil from United Campus Workers Kentucky clearly feels the same way. His colleague Shelby Roberts continued to dig in: “They are providing free testing which is great. But, it’s not continuous testing. It’s not…just…everything sounds better on paper than it is in real life.” The two highlighted other issues like inadequate distancing infrastructure and the lack of hazard pay for facilities staff who are likely being exposed to the virus on a daily basis. “The University is taking a calculated risk.”

But of course they are. They have to. And while nobody would say everything is being handled perfectly, it would also be naive to say that extreme caution wasn’t taken and health and safety wasn’t on the decision makers’ minds.

“We will take every precaution, your child will be safe with us,” Dean Simon Sheather of UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics states plainly. Dean Sheather first realized the coronavirus would be an issue on a trip to Milan in February and quickly took action when the first case popped up in Kentucky a couple weeks later. “We went to Costco and bought laptops, cameras, and headsets. We had 10 days to go from face to face to online, more than 250 sections of classes that were face to face all online.” The Dean credits the faculty and staff for a successful switch to online learning to end the Spring semester and echoes that same sentiment for precautions taken when bringing students back this fall.

“We have stickers everywhere: ‘keep right.’ We have stickers on chairs saying ‘you can’t sit here,’ we have plexiglass that the professors stand behind. When they talk at the lectern, we have movable plexiglass if the professor wants to go over and write on the whiteboard. The students are socially distanced within the classrooms and that reduces capacity a lot.” He told us that above all “The mantra has the following components: socially distance, wear your mask, wash your hands.”

Campus social distancing markers

Campus social distancing markers

When we asked the Dean about what the University could be doing differently to protect students more, he didn’t really have an answer, and I don’t think that was too politically motivated. He said the University moved slow to make decisions, but that that was probably necessary to ensure those decisions were the correct ones. Dean Sheather is a genuine and fun-loving Aussie. He is truly confident that his College and UK as a whole will keep students safe and he just asks for one thing in return.

“I hope that we can be kind to each other, this is a really dreadfully difficult time, so I hope that people give each other the benefit of the doubt. We shouldn’t get angry at each other, we should try to mediate situations so we all feel like we’re part of one thing: a kinder and gentler place.” Perhaps the Dean articulated well exactly what UK is hoping for with their culture of concern, accountability, and shared responsibility.

Stay tuned next week, we’ll head to the track and find out how COVID is impacting another Central Kentucky staple: Keeneland. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Article written by Nate Antetomaso

Go cats and go content. Middle Tech: @middletechpod