KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Update (Dec. 1, 2021): In yet another reversal to rules amid ongoing court battles over federal COVID-19 mandates, the University of Tennessee announced it is dropping its mask and vaccine mandates for all faculty, staff and students.
On Wednesday, the University of Tennessee sent a letter saying it will no longer require masks for employees and students, or for most of its employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. This includes federally connected contractors at the university.
The reason for yet another reversal: Two district courts issued preliminary injunctions Tuesday to block certain federal vaccine provisions until numerous lawsuits could be heard in court. One ruling issued by a Louisiana judge blocked the federal vaccine mandate across the U.S. for healthcare workers in facilities that receive government funding, and another issued by a Kentucky judge blocked the vaccine mandate in Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio for federally funded contractors.
Following those rulings, the Tennessee Comptroller's Office said it would suspend all 69 exemptions it had issued in November to organizations in the state that were able to prove their federal funding would have been impacted by regulations under the state's recently signed COVID-19 omnibus law. That law was passed during a COVID-19 special session in November, which blocks various vaccine and mask rules from being implemented in government and private workplaces.
"With the preliminary injunction in place, the university must now comply with Tennessee law, which prohibits state institutions like UT Knoxville from requiring masks or COVID-19 vaccinations," UT Chancellor Donde Plowman said. "As a result, all mask and vaccine requirements on our campus have been lifted. We ask that members of the campus community make whatever personal choices they think are best with respect to vaccines and masks while being considerate of the choices, health conditions, and requests of others."
The comptroller's office said it is still accepting exemption requests online should the court rulings be overturned, but said it will not grant any unless the court injunctions are lifted.
"It is important to note that these exemptions may be reinstated if the injunctions are lifted, and it is legally permissible," the comptroller's office said.
Prior to the court rulings, UT had issued vaccine and mask mandates after it determined the federal vaccine mandate for federal employees and contractors also widely applied to most employees within nearly every academic building on UT Knoxville's campus.
The federal mandate covered full-time, part-time, temporary, and student employees in most academic buildings -- minus athletic facilities, residence halls, Greek houses, recreational sports facilities, and a small number of non-academic buildings.
The federal mandate did not require students to be vaccinated unless they were employed by the university.
UTK had required employees who'd been vaccinated to show proof, and for unvaccinated employees to begin the process of either getting fully vaccinated or submitting a formal medical or religious exemption with documentation by January 18, 2022.
Prior to Wednesday, masking had also been resumed on campus after the university received the exemption from the Tennessee comptroller's office to reimplement the program.
UT said they expected the situation to change amid the ongoing legal battles over the federal COVID-19 mandates.
"With court cases pending, this remains a fluid situation. We will continue to keep you updated. Thank you for all you are doing in support of our students and our university," Plowman said.
The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's office has granted an exemption to a newly signed state law to the University of Tennessee, which will allow the system to continue implementing vaccine and mask mandates to keep federal funding intact.
On Tuesday, the comptroller's office announced it had granted 18 such exemptions -- including to the University of Tennessee, Vanderbilt University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory's operator UT-Battelle, East Tennessee State University, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and others.
The university had abruptly paused its mask mandate on Monday in order to follow the new state law. After being granted the exemption, Chancellor Donde Plowman sent an email to the campus community saying that masks will be reimplemented starting Monday, Nov. 22.
"As things currently stand, to maintain compliance with federal Executive Order 14042 we must put a mask requirement back in place for most UT Knoxville buildings, which we plan to do effective Monday, November 22," she said in the email. "Because federal funding is at stake, the new state law provides federal contractors with the ability to apply for an exemption to the state law, and President Boyd applied on behalf of the UT System to the state comptroller. We received notice of the exemption yesterday, shortly after President Boyd’s email was sent."
On Monday, UT President Randy Boyd said the system lifted its mask mandate immediately in order to follow an omnibus law passed during the state's COVID-19 special session preventing state, local and private entities from implementing mask and vaccine mandates.
"On Friday evening, Governor Bill Lee signed SB9014/HB9077, which precludes state entities from having mask or vaccine mandates unless exempted from the law by the State Comptroller when federal funding is at risk," Boyd writes. "Accordingly, we are lifting mask requirements across the UT System effective immediately."
However, several private and federally funded entities raised immediate concerns to the governor that such a law would jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding. Lawmakers took those concerns into consideration in the final hours of the special session, adding a way for businesses and others to exempt themselves from most of the key provisions in the new law by submitting a petition to the comptroller's office -- so long as they could prove federal funding would be impacted.
Plowman said people on campus should use personal judgement until the mask mandate returns next week.
"We are preparing for the mask requirement to be back in place on Monday, November 22," Plowman said. "Until that time, please make whatever personal choice you think is best while being respectful of your students and fellow employees, whether they choose to wear a mask or not."