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‘Safest Manner Possible’: IHL Pledges to Reopen Colleges Amid Doubt, Fear

University of Mississippi ASB President Joshua Mannery, 21, rising senior at the University of Mississippi and student body president, says UM probably has the resources to deal with COVID-19 effects, due to its “privileged” access to resources. Photo Courtesy Joshua Mannery.

Calvert White, a rising junior at Alcorn University, said he is wary of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning’s recently passed resolution to reopen public-university campuses for the 2020 fall semester. 

“I really don’t feel safe,” White told the Mississippi Free Press. “It’s May, and August is far away, so no one really knows what could transpire within that time frame.” 

“And I feel like Mississippi hasn’t done a good job in general of keeping us safe,” he continued, referring to what he believes are weak shelter-at-home regulations that are essentially ending Monday, June 1, when Gov. Tate Reeves’ recent “Safe Return” order goes into place.

The IHL board governs all eight public universities in Mississippi. In its resolution passed via livestream May 21, the IHL said, “It is the Board’s intent that all 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.” 

IHL released its May 21 resolution with a news release announcing that public universities both have an obligation to “resume traditional operations” in the fall and to “offer as many in-person classes as possible.” 

“We urge the universities to take prudent precautions in planning for resuming traditional operations and make adjustments as needed, based on recommendations from health experts,” the IHL Board of Trustees’ president, Ford Dye, said in the release. 

Alfred Rankins Jr., the state’s commissioner of higher education and founder of the Safe Start Task Force, described the plans to reopen university campuses as “fluid” because “there are many unknowns.” 

“Our goal is to provide the best academic experience in the safest manner possible,” Rankins said. 

As Helpful as Doc McStuffins

Joshua Mannery, the incoming student body president at the University of Mississippi watched the IHL livestream. While he is “happy at the prospect of being back on campus,” Mannery hopes that UM does not “rush to any particular decision.” He added that students’ responses to IHL’s plan have been “divisive” and that many UM students have voiced concerns. 

The University of Mississippi planning to reopen in the fall will be positive for student “efficacy,” Mannery said. “Considering how hard an end of the semester many students had, and considering the various internet (connectivity) problems that occurred, I think this resolution needed to happen,” he told the Mississippi Free Press. 

Mannery said, personally, he had a generally positive experience with digital learning, and that the university did a “pretty good job” with the transition to online classes. 

Calvert White, 20, rising senior at Alcorn University, worries what might happen at his HBCU if a second wave of COVIDi-19 hits. Photo Courtesy Calvert White.

At Alcorn, while Calvert White thinks that the rural southwest Mississippi-based HBCU will make decisions to keep students safe, he does not think the school has the resources to support the campus during an outbreak.

“Because of our location in Mississippi, if there was to be an outbreak, the campus infirmary would not be a good option,” he said. 

White said he believes some resources around Alcorn’s campus are as helpful as “Doc McStuffins,” an animated character from a Disney children’s show. 

The second wave could easily affect Alcorn State. Coronavirus cases are still increasing in Mississippi and continuing to overwhelmingly affect black citizens. In total, Mississippi has had 14,044 cases and 670 deaths, and as of May 26, 313 new cases and 18 deaths.

Three hundred and thirty-eight of the deaths have been black Mississippians, and 7,026 of the infections have also been black citizens.

These numbers place Alcorn State, a historically black university, with a black student population of 92.2%, at high risk for an increased number of cases if a second wave of the virus were to occur in fall 2020. 

The Alcorn website’s COVID-19 page’s latest update on May 10 from university President Felecia M. Nave said that currently the campus is slowly bringing back essential employees with strict screening guidelines. 

Alcorn State University will begin to slowly yet strategically re-introduce select essential employees back into the campus environment until such time that it is safe to return all employees. Employees deemed necessary to return to work will be notified by their area vice president and/or supervisor. Remaining employees will continue in a telework status,” the update reads. 

The website shows no official plan for students’ fall 2020 return, though IHL has said it will happen.

UM ‘Privileged’ Access to Resources During COVID-19

Mannery said he thinks the University of Mississippi has the resources needed to stabilize the campus during a second wave because the school is “privileged.” 

The UM website’s COVID-19 page’s latest update on May 19 from Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce details the university’s Future Planning Task Force. The task force is composed of five subcommittees in the areas of academic planning and experiences, athletics, financial planning/implications, parameters and protocols, and student services and support. 

“University leadership will announce the operational framework that we will use for Fall 2020 no later than June 30,” Boyce wrote.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce plans to reveal UM’s Future Planning Task Force and “operational framework” for reopening in fall 2020 no later than June 30. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi .

White said Mississippians are underestimating the virus and that a second wave is inevitable. 

He has noticed while working at Basil’s in the Renaissance in Ridgeland that while this restaurant is taking the necessary precautions for customer safety, many customers are not. 

“I have seen countless customers come in with no gloves and no sanitizer in sight,” White said. “Some of the customers aren’t taking the necessary precautions, and I see it all day every day.”

White said this lack of care in public spaces has caused greater concern about college campuses where students come “from all over.” 

“The decision to open the universities up for traditional learning is frankly irresponsible,” he said. “I’m not with it.” 

“But am I going to go back for the sake of my grades and my GPA? Yes,” White added.

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