Tennessee Wesleyan University (TWU) President Dr. Harley Knowles believes the university has been very fortunate, lately, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We tested a lot of our students when they came back from their Christmas break and we have been very fortunate that we had probably seven to 10 cases and around 30 people that needed to go into quarantine,” Knowles expressed. “We felt wonderful about that given that they had been gone for several weeks and, of course, things were spiking (with the virus) at that time.”

He noted that the virus has steadily decreased throughout the county and in the public schools.

“It has been a constant decline,” he noted. “We are down to one or two cases a week and maybe a handful of people in quarantine who had an exposure, so it has been wonderful.”

Knowles stated the university has not had any major issues with faculty or staff having COVID.

“That was always a worry that I had, that someone would get terribly sick,” Knowles expressed. “We have had some close calls with relatives of faculty or staff but for the most part we are doing well.”

Knowles stated that the university and college staff do not qualify for vaccinations and have to wait until the vaccination phases reach their age group.

“There was an effort to get college and universities included in the teacher vaccinations but that was not accepted at the state level,” Knowles stated. “So we have to wait until the phases arrive for the categories that we are in ... We have some that have gotten vaccinated and we are excited about that, but we will be encouraging all of our employees to get vaccinated.”

Knowles mentioned that he did not believe it would become a requirement for faculty and staff to become vaccinated, but they will offer some incentives for those who wish to receive the vaccine.

“We are going to do an anonymous poll to find out where our faculty and staff are and how much hesitancy there is,” Knowles said. “We will roll out incentives to make it easier for them who do receive their vaccinations, such as try to do vaccinations on campus for our employees and the same for the students if they hadn’t already been vaccinated (at a later date). Another thing that we will do is make sure that they will not be penalized if they take time off to get the vaccination or if they are not feeling well due to having been vaccinated ... We will try to be as flexible as we can to encourage them to receive it.”

Looking ahead toward the school’s graduation, university officials cancelled their spring break (which would have been this week) and moved their graduation up.

The graduation is currently planned to take place outside, in the university’s traditional spot, however this year the graduation will be split among two days to guarantee social distancing and other guideline policies are being followed.

“We created two graduations that we are hosting on April 30 for all of our allied health profession graduates and then everyone else will be held the next morning, May 1, at 9 a.m.,” he noted. “We are hosting two graduations so that we can divide the amount of people and attendance and not have a superspreader event. This way we can spread everybody out and masks will be required.”

The reason the health profession graduates are being separated from the other graduates is due to the amount of students in those fields between the Athens and Knoxville sites.

Knowles believes there have been several silver linings that have come about due to the pandemic.

The first silver lining he mentioned was the university’s upgrade in technology.

“Specifically in terms of the speed of our internet in terms of all the new technology, we have put large monitors everywhere, our faculty are much more comfortable having online classes and at the same time doing face to face classes,” he mentioned. “We are stronger in the use of our technology and we have better technology.”

The second silver lining he mentioned was the restored appreciation people have found interacting with others due to the pandemic causing separation.

“When you can’t be together in large groups you realize how much you care about each other and how much you value each other,” he expressed.

The final silver lining for Knowles was the impression his faculty, staff and students left him with their compliance to the guidelines during the pandemic.

“Our employees and our students have done the social distancing, done the testing, worn masks everywhere and that is the reason why our case count has been very low,” Knowles said. “We have learned that it feels good to take care of each other and we have done a good job and I am really proud of our community for what they have been able to do in that regard.”

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