Dr. Alfred Rankins, Jr., Alcorn State University President

Colleges and universities will resume “traditional operations” in fall of 2020, the Board of  Trustees of Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning voted on Thursday. 

The IHL Board, which oversees all of Mississippi’s eight public colleges and universities, passed this resolution unanimously and without discussion.

Commissioner of Higher Learning Alfred Rankins Jr. proposed a resolution to the board that said the board recognizes, “that providing a safe learning and living environment for the students it serves is paramount … [and] that providing a safe work environment for the system employees … is equally paramount.”

The resolutions goes on to state that, “all of the universities under the governance of the board shall make plans to resume traditional operations on their campuses in the Fall of 2020 to include the offering of as many in-person classes as possible.”

As they plan, higher learning administrators must also take into consideration all applicable guidance from the federal government, the Mississippi Department of Health and any executive orders from the governor that may be in effect at that time.  

“The board urges the universities to take prudent precautions in planning for resuming traditional operations and the board recognizes that adjustments may be needed to align in changes with recommendations from health experts,” Rankins read from the resolution. 

After the meeting, the IHL board sent out a press release stating that the Safe Start Task Force, which Rankins established, “is developing a system-level plan for starting and completing the fall 2020 semester in the safest and most effective way.”

The state’s coronavirus cases are not declining, though the data is highly variable. As of May 20, Mississippi had more than 12,000 confirmed cases and 580 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.

In March, the IHL board voted to extend spring break and cancel all in-person classes for the remainder of the semester in order to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Mississippi Community College Board is permitting each individual institution to decide whether it will offer in-person classes in the fall.

First and foremost student safety will be top priority,” said Kell Smith, director of communications and legislative services for the board. “Hopefully they will [resume in-person classes], but that will be that up to each (institution) to decide.” 

Some universities have already made plans for their faculty to return to work. Delta State University faculty will resume work on May 26. The university has deep cleaned its facilities, will provide staff with four face masks each and is still encouraging virtual meetings.

Others, like the University of Mississippi, are still contemplating when faculty should return. The university is represented on the Safe Start Task Force, but created its own internal task force comprised of administration, faculty and staff to develop recommendations surrounding academic and financial planning, athletics, and other topics involving reopening.

“I know you are keenly interested in when faculty and staff will return to work on campus. We will do so in a phased approach, based on the nature of the work activities in each unit. We are in the midst of discussions on how best to structure that, and we expect to share an update very soon,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce wrote in a message to students, faculty and staff.

Governor Tate Reeve’s commended IHL’s decision to start planning for in-person classes in the fall.

“We do believe that it is likely that the virus is going to come back in the fall at some level, and we’re going to have to be prepared for that,” Reeves said during his daily press conference. “We’re going to have to slow the spread of the virus again, but I also believe that we cannot shut down businesses. Nor can we shut down universities or schools for years and years on end … and expect them to be able to rally back with the snap of a finger.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.