SEWANEE: Petition to the Vice Chancellor & Boards of Regents & Trustees

SEWANEE: Petition to the Vice Chancellor & Boards of Regents & Trustees

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Petition to the Vice Chancellor and the Boards of Regents and Trustees of Sewanee: The University of the South

The undersigned cohesive group of parents, alumni, and current students of The University of the South (“Sewanee”) are committed and motivated to bring some sense of scientific, rational, and heartfelt normalcy to the Sewanee education and athletic experiences and general well-being of its community.  We speak as a group with steadfast determination to demonstrate inconsistencies in current policy and forecast the dangerous consequences for Sewanee as a result of recent decisions.  The seminal event that led to this organized effort was Sewanee’s decision as the only school in the Southern Athletic Association (“SAA”) not to allow travel during Spring 2021 sports or play consistent with SAA guidelines for competition.

Background                                                                                                             We recognize the difficult situation the pandemic has created for the entire country and the world.  Sewanee has enacted certain policies and procedures and Community Health Commitments “every member of the Sewanee community is expected to support” intended to create a protective “bubble” around campus.  These standards and the bubble are what Sewanee relies upon to keep faculty, staff, and students safe and to enable in-person learning.

We contend that the bubble is nothing but an illusion.  Rather, Sewanee has mandated nothing more than a student-quarantine to campus.  The geographical area of the bubble includes residences and businesses that are public and frequented by non-university persons daily who are not required to follow Sewanee’s safety protocol. Sewanee is placing the sole responsibility to prevent spread of the virus upon the students, who are not at high risk for hospitalization, ICU admission, or death from the virus.  In Tennessee, only 2% of COVID-19 cases are hospitalized.  70% of deaths are those over age 70, but 0% for those under age 21.[1]   In contrast, the faculty and staff, who may have risk and/or fear of the virus, come and go from the bubble as desired to their homes, grocery stores, restaurants, and other cities, interacting with untested populations, and do not fully adhere to Sewanee’s standards.  In this regard, the concept of a bubble fails to provide protection to faculty and staff, and it is questionable whether or not the successes of Fall 2020 are attributable to this bubble given its constant breach. This is evidenced on Sewanee’s COVID-19 dashboard for November and December 2020, indicating the majority of cases were non-student (15 faculty staff cases versus 3 student cases). 

We understand the primary goal set forth by Sewanee for the Easter Semester is to keep campus open for in-person instruction; ironically, however, the majority of classes continue to be held online and not in-person, despite the claimed protections of this bubble, and the fact that the most vulnerable of Sewanee’s community aged >70 years old now have eligibility for vaccination.  The vaccine is a game changer. We urge Sewanee to recognize this and re-evaluate who is now statistically at risk of hospitalization from COVID-19.  Additionally, many of the undersigned have expressed concerns that the overall quality of instruction has declined while the tuition rate increased for 2020-2021.   

We were promised information concerning the Spring 2021 athletic season no later than the Easter semester tuition, room and board due date of January 15, 2021.  Sewanee understood this information was vital for students to evaluate whether or not to return to campus with the onus of the bubble, or opt for remote learning and decline to pay room and board.  On January 7, 2021, the Vice Chancellor held a webinar with athletes wherein he announced his intent to request the SAA delay its decision regarding Spring athletics until February 12, 2021 so they could further evaluate the execution of Fall and Winter sports.  The Vice Chancellor also indicated potential for a Spring season consistent with the rest of the SAA, including travel. On January 11, 2021, Sewanee issued a press release[2] crafted in a manner which misled readers to believe Sewanee was moving forward with Spring sports, all of which are held outdoors, and would regularly monitor the virus’ spread. The release did not mention Sewanee’s request of the SAA to delay a decision until February 12, nor did it indicate the SAA’s response to such a request.  Many parents and students were denied this information, which was key in evaluating whether or not to pay room and board.  The overall perception is Sewanee moved the goal posts during the decision process to entice payment of room and board for the Easter semester. At a minimum, the communication was poor, lacked transparency, and was disingenuous.

On February 1, the Vice Chancellor held a Zoom meeting with students (athlete and non-athlete), coaches, and certain parents and faculty, including from the School of Theology.  The Vice Chancellor reiterated the decision was based upon (1) safety and (2) ensuring campus remained open for in-person instruction.  Athletes, coaches and parents outlined methodology by which Spring athletic travel could be safely achieved, and supported this with CDC and State of Tennessee data. No Sewanee athlete would come in contact with untested populations.  Athletes indicated their willingness to adhere to protocols.  However, the majority of the faculty represented did not support athletes leaving campus (just as faculty and staff do daily) and cited the unfairness to non-athletes otherwise bound to the bubble.  The general perception from the meeting was the decision was controlled by non-scientific reasoning by faculty who would decrease in-person instruction if athletes were permitted to travel.  Again, we contend the quality and amount of in-person instruction is already at substandard levels.    

On February 8, 2021, we were stunned when, without provision of scientific evidence or other reasoning, Sewanee decided not to allow travel for Spring athletics or a season consistent with the rest of the SAA.

Rationale                                                                                                                  We desire to dispel the myth that student athletes leaving campus in a controlled manner and playing in accordance with the standards set by the SAA will create added risk to Sewanee.  Mercer University, for example, a Division I school in the Southern Conference with 9,000 students and 1,900 faculty, is holding classes entirely in-person, and all fall, winter, and spring sports were allowed to compete without a large outbreak linked to athletic competition.  Many other successful examples exist.

In December 2020, the Vice Chancellor stated the decision was partially based on the spiking numbers of cases and hospitalizations, and the low regional hospital capacity near Sewanee.  As of February 13, 2021, the hospitalized case numbers in Tennessee are down 66% from December 2020 and January 2021 - currently 1,109 cases versus 3,344 cases at its peak.[3] COVID-19 is not an emergency illness requiring acute care in the immediate vicinity like a motor vehicle accident.  Most patients have time to get to a hospital, even if it is in Nashville, Chattanooga or Knoxville, all cities which have major universities with large student bodies receiving in-person instruction and participating in athletic competition.  

Tested opponent athletes coming to Sewanee is no different than allowing tested Sewanee athletes to go to them.  All players come in contact with one another regardless of location. The risk associated with athletes travelling outside the false bubble is actually lower than that of faculty and staff who do so daily without the heightened protocol proposed by Sewanee athletic teams.  Sewanee athletes will be masking, testing, and traveling together no differently than they are currently gathering at Sewanee.  The nature of outdoor athletic competition does not pose a significant risk of viral transfer, as most competition does not reach the fifteen minutes of close contact (less than six feet unmasked) stated by the CDC to increase risk  of contracting COVID-19.[4]  A recent study by the CDC and NCAA revealed that athletes reported the majority of exposure to COVID-19 was from social gatherings (40.7%) and roommates (31.7%) in contrast with athletic activities (12.7%), including close contact and indoor sports, which Spring sports are not.[5] 

Sewanee athletes have worked their entire lives to excel in their sport. Cancellation of the Spring 2020 season made sense because we were dealing with many unknowns concerning the virus.  This year, we know this enemy and how to defeat it.  We have learned that masks, social distancing, hand washing and testing can slow and/or prevent the spread of the virus, not to mention we now have a vaccine that every high-risk person >70 years of age within the Sewanee community should have received or be in the process of receiving.  We implore Sewanee to consider the absolute and unrecoverable sadness the senior athletes are enduring, especially Spring athletes with now two of their four college seasons impacted in the name of protecting them from a virus that is deemed low risk.  One in four young adults ages 18-24 considered suicide during the pandemic, which is more than double of that recorded in 2018.  Depression and anxiety increased four and three-fold respectively.[6]  Given that 99.5% of those infected by COVID-19 recover[7], and the existence of therapies like monoclonal antibodies that did not exist last year,  the odds of losing a student or faculty member is likely lower than the chances of losing a student to depression and suicide due to Sewanee’s onerous and unreasonable restrictions. 

The unifying power of Sewanee athletics to bridge the gaps that divide our country in politics, race relations, and many other areas should not be underestimated.  Relationships built amongst Sewanee teammates or with opponent teams will forge much needed communication and reconciliation in areas that are part of the ongoing work and advocacy of the Episcopal Church.  If not stifled, Sewanee athletes will emerge as our country’s next leaders representing these values.

Sewanee athletics are celebrated in the stained-glass windows of All Saints Chapel.  Approximately one-third of Sewanee students are athletes and this is an integral part of their Sewanee experience.  Last year’s valedictorian came to Sewanee to play baseball, and this year’s likely valedictorian is also a baseball player.  Many students past and present found Sewanee because of athletics, but the message now sent to prospective students is that Sewanee is unwilling to follow science-based options for a safe and responsible season and therefore does not prioritize athletics in comparison to other colleges.  They will choose to go elsewhere.  Many students are questioning their decision to come to Sewanee; some of the undersigned students are considering transferring; some of the undersigned parents are forbidding their younger children to attend Sewanee.  The short and long-term consequences are financial and will impact the quality or survival of not only Sewanee athletic programs, but the caliber of this university as a whole.

Many of us remember the bond we felt when we first set foot on the Mountain. It is a bond that encourages a lifetime of giving and it is this very bond that has created Sewanee’s financial strength.  Many of us now feel that bond has been betrayed and broken as a result of Sewanee’s recent irrational and unreasonable actions dating back to Fall 2020, and have either already decided to no longer support Sewanee or intend to seriously re-evaluate support should Sewanee continue on its current path. 

Relief Sought in this Petition                                                                                 We hereby seek the following:

1.       A published report by the Vice Chancellor and the Boards of Regents and Trustees of any and all evidence, including scientific reasoning supported by peer-reviewed data and state-recorded statistics, to support its February 8, 2021 decision regarding Spring athletics;

2.       Immediate reversal of Sewanee’s February 8, 2021 decision regarding Spring athletics and allowance for play consistent with SAA guidelines for competition, including travel for away games as originally scheduled;

3.       If item 2 above cannot be achieved, inasmuch as Sewanee failed to provide promised decision-making information no later than January 15, 2021, the retroactive opportunity to opt for online instruction for the Easter semester 2021, to include a prorated refund of room and board for any student who elects to depart campus; and

4.       Before any future financial commitment is made, parents and athletes require specific criteria for returning to play in writing prior to future seasons, along with a clearly communicated date by when that criteria will be defined, so they may make educated financial decisions concerning Sewanee.

Respectfully submitted,

Sewanee Parents, Athletes, Students, Alumni, and Donors 

***WHEN SIGNING, please indicate in the COMMENTS if you are a Parent, Student-Athlete, Student, or Alumni***

[1] https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data.html 
[2] https://sewaneetigers.com/general/2020-21/releases/20210110mp370x
[3] https://www.tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov/data/hospitalization-data/current-covid-hospitalizations.html
[4] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/youth-sports.html#:~:text=Being%20within%206%20feet%20of,risk%20of%20COVID%2D19%20spread
[5] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7001a2.htm
[6] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6932a1.htm
[7] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/planning-scenarios.html

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