By Dr. Alfred Rankins, Jr., Commissioner of Higher Education
The beginning of the fall semester on a university campus is always an exciting, but challenging, time. Welcoming students and faculty back to campus and preparing for fall athletics and events creates an energy and excitement that runs through the campus. In addition to the usual issues to address, this fall, Mississippi Public Universities must also help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, particularly the Delta variant.
Earlier this month, the Mississippi State Department of Health issued guidance to the universities, its COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for Colleges and University Settings. MSDH recommends that all eligible students, faculty, and staff receive COVID-19 vaccination. The universities have been actively promoting the vaccine to the campus community, offering incentives, including weekly drawings at The University of Southern Mississippi for prizes that include tuition, dining dollars, bookstore vouchers, housing credits and parking passes.
Mississippi University for Women recently announced their “Be Wise to Win” vaccination incentive program, where vaccine recipients are eligible to participate in weekly drawings for tuition credit, parking privileges, gift cards and other prizes. Students enrolled at Mississippi Valley State University in the fall 2021 semester, who get vaccinated against COVID-19 at any approved location (on or off-campus), are eligible to receive $250. In addition to the $250, MVSU students can win prizes, including housing, meal plans, and textbook refunds.
In addition to the incentives, the universities have ongoing communications and outreach efforts to encourage students, employees, and the surrounding community to get the vaccine. The universities also offer vaccination clinics on campus. Alcorn State University offered the COVID-19 vaccine for faculty, staff, undergraduate students, graduate students, and the families of those in the university community ages 18 and up, on the main campus plaza near the Student Union Building, during move-in days. Vaccinations continue to be available through Campus Health and Disability Services. Delta State University also offers vaccination opportunities at its health center on campus.
In keeping with MSDH guidance, all universities require masks to be worn indoors and they are requiring students and employees who have symptoms or have had contact with someone who has tested positive to self-isolate and make an appointment to be tested. The universities are also supporting social distancing by offering some virtual and hybrid classes and opening larger campus facilities, such as basketball arenas, that are not normally used for classrooms to allow for students in large classes to spread out and maintain the distance recommended by MSDH. Jackson State University requires all residential students to complete a temperature screening every 24 hours and has placed temperature check-in stations across campus that are available to on- and off-campus students and employees.
Throughout the pandemic, guidance and recommendations have evolved to reflect the status of the disease. The universities have maintained robust COVID microsites on their websites with information on campus protocol, links to campus, state, and national resources, and dashboards reporting numbers of cases within the campus community.
From the system level, I have weekly teleconference meetings with the presidents and chancellor at the universities. This constant communication has helped us to identify needs and address concerns to ensure that we are providing an excellent educational experience for students while also mitigating the spread of COVID-19. For example, the Board of Trustees recently voted to extend the time that the universities are allowed to operate under a revised contract policy that allows the universities to address the campus needs related to COVID-19 more efficiently and effectively. The Board of Trustees has monitored the COVID situation carefully through monthly updates provided by the University of Mississippi Medical Center leadership in the Health Affairs Committee meetings.
The universities are reporting a strong response to the vaccination efforts, with Mississippi State University reporting that 52 percent of students and 75 percent of employees have been vaccinated so far, with vaccination efforts ongoing. Mississippi Valley State University has had 70 percent of students living on campus confirm that they have been vaccinated. The University of Mississippi leads the SEC with 100 percent of its football program vaccinated. Since the fall of 2020, our universities have remained open for business and have not shut down due to excessive positive COVID-19 cases.
I would like to commend the students, employees, and university leaders for the way they have faced and overcome the numerous challenges presented during the pandemic. We continue to encourage our campus communities to follow all guidelines so we can have a safe, in-person fall semester.
On behalf of the 104,813 students, faculty and staff on our campuses, and the thousands more who will visit our campuses for athletics, arts and other events, the Board of Trustees and I will continue to work with university leadership to make the best decisions possible to continue providing an excellent educational experience while mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
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The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning governs the public universities in Mississippi, including Alcorn State University; Delta State University; Jackson State University; Mississippi State University including the Mississippi State University Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine; Mississippi University for Women; Mississippi Valley State University; the University of Mississippi including the University of Mississippi Medical Center; and the University of Southern Mississippi.