Yasmine Brown was running an errand outside Indianola, her hometown, on Jan. 6 when her roommates called. A positive test result had confirmed it: The exhaustion they were feeling was COVID-19. Brown, a senior at the University of Mississippi who had been preparing to leave for Oxford in the next week, couldn’t believe it.
“I was caught off guard, in disbelief, shocked. Like, dang,” she said, “they really tested positive.’”
It was not how the 21-year-old double major had pictured the start to her last semester of undergrad. But then again, college in general had not gone the way Brown had hoped it would since the coronavirus pandemic started nearly a year ago. The previous spring semester, Brown struggled to pay for groceries after her on-campus job cut her hours. Then, in the fall, the monotonous grind of online classes caused her to rarely leave her room. A self-described “over-thinker,” she felt on the brink of a mental breakdown.
Before the pandemic, Brown wanted to pursue a master’s degree immediately after graduating. Now she was day-dreaming about taking a gap year. Like many people struggling during the pandemic, Brown said she was starting to realize “I need a year or a semester off to figure out what I’m truly passionate about.”
In the weeks since Mississippi’s eight public universities reopened for the spring semester in mid-January, Mississippi Today spoke with students and faculty across the state about their college experience in the time of the coronavirus.
Their viewpoints were mixed, ranging from little criticism about their school’s pandemic response plan to wishing the university community had more input. Some were glad to be face-to-face in classrooms again, while others wanted to remain online. But everyone said that nearly a year of the pandemic, of losing jobs, getting sick, and seeing friends and family die, has left them deeply fatigued, with little energy remaining for the semester.
“I feel like I’ve been in school for a month already,” Tyler Yarbrough, a public policy major and student senator at UM, said in a phone call on Jan. 29.
That morning, the 21-year-old senior slept through his alarm for 8 a.m. Spanish, his last in-person class before he graduates in May. He doesn’t regret it, and he knows he’s not alone.
“Everybody is tired,” he said.
Among the most striking effects of COVID on Mississippi’s college campuses is the relative absence of activity. At dusk on a Thursday in late January, Jackson State University, Mississippi’s largest historically Black college with a student body nearly 7,000 strong, was mostly empty. The occasional student wandered past the gym; free parking spots lined the streets.
Though more students are living on-campus this semester due to sports that were postponed in the fall, JSU has stayed mostly online, only slightly increasing the number of face-to-face classes. In the before times, JSU associate professor of history Janice Brockley compared campus to a nesting tree.
“It was pretty lively,” she said. “We taught in the same building we all had our offices in — there’s alway people around, and people doing things. Students talking to each other, classes coming and going.”
“I guess none of it was wildly exciting,” Brockley added ruefully. “But daily life.”
Students miss campus daily life too. For one, they say it’s been easier to fall behind on studying or forget an assignment when they don’t physically attend class.
“It’s up to you to look on Canvas every day and make sure you’re up to date,” said Jacori Daniels, JSU’s student body president. “You get an email,” he added. “But an email is really easy to miss.”
It’s also harder to learn. At Delta State University, Jasmine Evans, a psychology major, is taking her last upper-division courses before she graduates in December. She said the pandemic has already disrupted her studies this semester. When she spoke with Mississippi Today on Feb. 3, her class on addiction, which was supposed to meet in a lecture hall, had been delayed for over three weeks because the professor was exposed to COVID-19.
Another class Evans is taking, biological psychology, is held online. The curriculum is complex, and the online lectures are hard to parse. Normally, Evans would raise her hand or linger after class to ask the professor about the material. But that’s not possible over Zoom. As a result, she’s found herself turning more to her classmates for help.
Evans is not the only student who has struggled to adapt.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to study,” said Dameia Graham, a masters student in public health at Mississippi University for Women who takes classes online. Graham started in the fall with a full-time courseload and a part-time job. But the pace of virtual learning proved challenging.
“I’m used to getting A’s for the most part,” she said, “but I was not making A’s.”
To keep up, Graham ended up quitting her job and dropping a class. In her bedroom at her childhood home in Vicksburg, she pushed herself to study in new ways, like quizzing herself with DIY tests. Now, she’s been able to enjoy her degree program this semester, but “it really did take a minute.”
Brockley, like many professors whose classes are now online, hasn’t stepped foot on JSU’s campus this year. Since teaching from home, she’s had to modify her instructional approach. In lieu of written class discussions, she asks students to respond to her lectures with voice recordings in an effort to mimic the Socratic method. She still finds it hard to establish rapport.
“I don’t feel nearly in touch with the students as I would normally,” she said. With online classes, “you don’t have that fluid give and take. You can’t directly respond to what they’re saying, and I miss that.”
Even as students and faculty miss being on campus, some schools have faced criticism for their approach to reopening.
Last fall, Mississippi Valley State University posted, as it does in the middle of every semester, the spring course offerings. About 36% of classes were online, 20% were hybrid, and the rest were in-person. Then on Jan. 4, the school announced it was departing from that plan. Students and faculty were informed that all classes would be online for the first three weeks, after which the administration would “reassess the environment due to COVID-19 and make modifications to instructional methods as determined, including beginning to phase in-person instruction.”
MVSU saw this plan as a way to ease anxiety among students about returning to campus, said Kathie Stromile Golden, the provost and vice president for academic affairs.
“We figured that would give people time to think, give students time if they needed to change their schedule,” she said.
But some MVSU students assumed this decision meant they could live at home for the semester, not realizing the school’s intent was to revert to the original course schedule come the first week of February. As the Jan. 25 deadline to register for classes approached, these students learned via emails from professors their classes would soon be held in-person. This led a number of students, namely those living overseas and out-of-state, to scramble to switch to classes that would stay online, even opting for ones that would not count toward their major, said Rodkell Barber, a junior studying speech and communication.
The 20-year-old said he wasn’t affected by the change because he was already living on campus in a double-dorm room. But he understood why his friends in California and Florida were confused and upset.
“You never know, what if COVID gets back, and they have to catch a flight and go right back across the country?” he said, referring to when MVSU asked students during spring break last year not to return to the residence halls. “It’s unpredictable.”
MVSU’s decision affected faculty too. Kathryn Green, a 68-year-old professor, now has to go to campus once a week to teach general-ed world and African-American history. Before leaving, she puts on a double-layer cotton mask she has lined with a coffee filter. Her classroom, which has no windows, is outfitted with a plastic divider to separate her from the approximately 40 students. After class finishes, a cleaning crew mists the room with disinfectant. (Green said MVSU gave her the option of teaching in an auditorium, but she doesn’t like setting up her laptop with the projector there).
Green was initially apprehensive about teaching in-person due to her age. She has no way of ensuring a COVID-postive student does not come to class because MVSU, like every university in Mississippi, does not require students to get tested on-campus. At the same time, Green, who is due to get her second vaccine soon, wanted to be in the classroom out of a sense of duty to her students.
“There is an emotional connection with students, and we try our best to get our students through,” Green said. “We try our best to make administrative decisions work for the students.”
“Grocery store workers aren’t getting (vaccinated), and I go to the grocery store,” she added. “So I better step up and do my part.”
The only students on campus required to get tested by Mississippi universities are student athletes. For everyone else, the onus is on them. While it’s unclear how schools would enforce required testing, students and professors told Mississippi Today this honor code system has a serious flaw: Not everyone on university campuses can be relied on to take measures to ensure they don’t contract COVID-19. For example, about two weeks after classes started this year at UM, the Oxford Board of Aldermen voted to reinstate a city-wide mask mandate in response to calls and emails about maskless people queuing in the Square, the town’s central gathering place filled with shops and restaurants.
While some students party, others have spent hours outside work and school advocating for the vulnerable people on their campuses. This is in part because students feel like they have a perspective the university often ignores: At MSU, for example, Tyler Packer, the student association president, is one of just two African Americans on the school’s 37-person COVID-19 task force. He said he’s urged the administration to consider the stigma Black students may feel toward the vaccine.
At UM, DeArrius Rhymes, a student senator, said he felt compelled to act early last semester after watching reports of outbreaks and student parties circulate the news. In September, Rhymes along with six student senators co-signed a resolution urging the university to increase on-campus testing for students living in the dorms. A week later, the university announced it would offer free asymptomatic testing.
“As a student leader, I felt like we had to make a lot of important decisions,” Rhymes, a senior studying chemistry, said. It seemed like UM wasn’t “doing anything,” he added. “We had to urge them to set up more testing, challenge them to respond in a better way.”
This semester, Rhymes and other student senators say they are continuing to pressure UM to improve its COVID response plan. One of their initiatives is a resolution asking UM to expand on-campus childcare for students, faculty and staff. Rhymes said it was important to him to advocate for this, because he doesn’t want people to forget that college during the pandemic is only made possible by the labor of facilities staff, many of whom are Black women.
“I’m not sitting back and watching,” Rhymes said. “Service workers, people in the cafeteria who clean up after us, they need support out of respect for being human.”
At the same time, Rhymes is still a student. Trying to hold the university accountable comes on top of passing his chemistry labs and studying for medical school. The morning he spoke to Mississippi Today, Rhymes had been catching up on emails.
“From the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep, I’m always doing something,” Rhymes said. “I wake up, try to go to the gym, have a meeting or two each day and, if not, catch up on school work. Then maybe I’ll have some alone time. It’s like, when you think the day is over, I know it’s not.”
Brown, the undergrad from Indianola, didn’t make the drive to Oxford until Jan. 21, ten days after the semester started. When she got back, she wiped her room down with Lysol and Clorox bleach. Because Brown and her roommates live in university-owned housing, they asked UM if professional cleaners could sanitize their apartment. She says the school denied this request because her roommates chose to quarantine in the apartment in lieu of isolation housing.
Brown was frustrated the university couldn’t offer more support.
“The school has resources for cleaning supplies,” she said. “There should’ve been something they were able to do.”
Between school and work and worrying about COVID-19, students and professors say it’s easier than ever to feel siloed off from the rest of the campus community. At MVSU, Barber, the junior, has spent much of his semester sitting in his dorm room doing assignments. Normally a social person, he said it’s been hard not to dwell on what this school year could have been, the goals he had hoped to accomplish: Running for Royal Court, working out more, road-tripping to Atlanta for his first Pride.
“I feel like I’m really stuck in this parallel universe,” he said. “The great part about coming to school is that we could be active and be around each other. Now that I’m just stuck in my room, I feel like I could’ve stayed home.”
“But at the same time, I’m trying to cherish it,” he continued. He’s tried, as often as is feasible, to meet up with his friends on the lawn or go to drive-thru movies. “I’m a junior, so I know my time is almost ending … I might as well soak it in even though it’s COVID still, try to have the fun that I can … I kinda feel like I’m getting robbed of my experience.”
Brown feels the same. Seeing her professors, mentors and friends on-campus has helped a lot, she said. She’s coping better this semester. Her anxiety has abated. But these glimpses of normalcy come with their own kind of sadness.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “Like, well, dang, I didn’t get the full experience I wanted my senior year. I’m getting a little piece of the cake, but I don’t have the whole slice.”
After she graduates in May, Brown has decided to take a gap year in the Dallas Fort-Worth area before pursuing a masters degree. She picked it because she likes the city’s atmosphere—the same reason why she chose to stay in Mississippi for college.
“It’s a place I feel like I could fully survive,” she said. “It feels like family.”