Mississippi State
Students walk the campus at Mississippi State University Students Tuesday, October 9, 2019.

Two months after the coronavirus swept the globe, the Board of Trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning abruptly voted that the state’s public universities must resume “traditional operations” in the fall.

That means offering as many face-to-face classes as possible — a nerve wracking concept for people whose lives have been upended by this pandemic.

Naturally, more questions arose than answers, the most pressing of those being “how?”

“How can we build a sense of community and be safe? We know we’re not the only ones trying to figure this out, so there’s a lot of interesting conversations going on,” said Nora Miller, president of Mississippi University of Women in a June interview.

As each university releases its plan for the fall, common trends emerge that seek to answer the query Miller and others pose.

Masks are a must for students, faculty and visitors while on campus. Class sizes will be reduced. Classes that can be conducted virtually will be. Semesters will be condensed so students don’t come back after fall break, in hopes of limiting the spread from universities to hometowns and back again.

Housing will look much the same, but some universities are providing options for private dorms; certain dorms will be reserved as quarantine wards for sick or exposed students. And, professors must be prepared to pivot their classes to go completely virtual at any time.

“Potentially anything is possible, right? None of us knows what the course of the pandemic will be in the fall and we seek guidance from the state for many of those decisions,” said Dr. Amy Chasteen, Executive Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi.

As a member of the course delivery task force, Chasteen has personally reviewed 5,200 class sections to determine which could be delivered virtually. More than 75 percent of the classes were moved to remote; the remaining ones were moved to larger class rooms and are meeting at 25 percent capacity with physical distancing and masking required.

Still, even the most thoughtful plans cannot account for student behavior.

“I worry about how many more students will become infected once thousands more return to town in August. My fear is that student behavior will lead to massive campus outbreaks, which in turn will lead to large outbreaks in college towns … In this scenario, universities run the risk of becoming the new epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States,” said Mikaela Adams, Associate Professor of Native American History at the University of Mississippi. Adams is also a historian of the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Chasteen, a sociology professor, is uniquely aware of the difficulties that come with changing human behavior.

“Human behavior is challenging because culture change is hard and that’s really, truly what we’re talking about. Any time you’re trying to change the norms of how we conduct ourselves, it takes time. When you’re talking about things like keeping distance from people and wearing a mask, I think that’s a major cultural shift in our day-to-day life and how we operate,” Chasteen said.

She continued: “It just normally takes time and we don’t have time to adjust the norm. So when you’re trying to do something quickly like that it’s really hard and it takes a lot of concerted effort. We on campus have been trying to do that as expeditiously as possible.”

The University of Mississippi got a foretaste of this challenge in June, when a cluster of young adults tested positive for the coronavirus in Oxford after gathering for a fraternity rush party.

Aside from not being able to control student behavior, colleges are also vulnerable in that they’re reliant on students to self-report if they’ve tested positive for the coronavirus. If a student gets tested at a local clinic that’s not affiliated with the college, those results don’t automatically get sent to university officials, which only adds to the already existent contact tracing confusion.

“It becomes complicated especially when a student, faculty or staff member goes to an outside clinic to get tested … So we’ve been trying to work with the clinics in town. If they get a positive case and identify them as a student, to remind [the student] to call and let us know so that we can document that,” said Alex Langhart, Director of University Health Services at UM.

And while university task forces have worked endlessly to create solutions for an untested problem, questions about how to do that will still persistently emerge.

“It’s just constant, the questions,” Miller said. “And we find ourselves just in a big circle of questions. We’ll start off one way then we’ll wrap ourselves all the way through back around to the beginning again. There is just so much unknown and so many different things to consider.”

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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.