Today, July 20, 2020, marks the third stage of the reopening of Millsaps’ campus. With few exceptions, staff members have returned to their offices. Faculty members can be seen around campus, and a dozen students are working in laboratories and other locations associated with their summer internships.
While the reopening of campus is a welcome sign, the conditions of this reopening are far from normal. At every entrance to campus a sign is posted stating that the person entering—Millsaps community member or visitor alike—must attest to being free of COVID-like symptoms. Once on campus, social distancing is required and facemasks are mandated where social distancing is not possible. In the lobby of every building sanitizing wipes are available and hand sanitizing dispensers are provided. Classroom furniture is being moved and desks removed to allow for space. The list goes on, and we will continue to evaluate best practices and make appropriate decisions based on new findings.
These campus conditions were inconceivable six months ago and hardly imaginable in mid-March when we moved to on-line instruction for the remainder of the spring semester. But even as we made decisions to finish the spring semester virtually, we began preparing for the return of our students in the fall. Six planning groups were created to address the health, safety and educational issues needing attention, a host of campus community members were enlisted to participate in the work of the planning groups and a partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center was formed to advise the college on policies and protocols.
While the administration is working hard to understand the COVID challenges and prepare for the future, staff members are managing the business of their offices and faculty are preparing for a multi-modal delivery of our educational product in the fall. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the time, thought and effort being invested by the faculty and staff to ensure the best and most meaningful educational experience possible for our students—an experience whose hallmark is close relationships among our students, faculty and staff.
And it is that goal—the best and most meaningful educational experience possible—that drives my continued belief that, if the health and safety of our community—including ALL members of our community—can be reasonably supported, we must continue planning for the return of students in August. Our students are our customers. They are the reason we exist; it is they whom we serve; and we must do everything we can to give them the best possible education consistent with our 130-year foundation as a residential liberal arts college.
I am not unaware nor dismissive of the changing landscape and disturbing surge of Coronavirus cases across our nation, particularly in the Sunbelt and including Mississippi. I am also aware that some colleges and universities are moving toward remote-only instruction in the fall, including Rhodes College in Memphis where local conditions are exceedingly problematic.
This brings me to the most critical point: each college must assess its own circumstances, risks and conditions on the ground when making these decisions. Looking at Millsaps: we have the benefit of having mostly small classes in classrooms and laboratories where we can minimize density and achieve social distancing. We are also able to spread out in our dining hall, common areas and residence halls, including one residence hall with exterior room entrances and semi-private bathrooms that can house ten percent of our student body and serve as a quarantine and isolation space for students. We have incredible opportunities to be outdoors on a beautiful campus and in settings where the educational experience can continue, and we’re taking steps to make more outdoor spaces available for instruction, dining and campus activities. And, we have the advantage of being in the heart of a medical corridor and in partnership with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Indeed, our proximity to health care providers, off-campus testing facilities and government resources is desirable among peer institutions.
I have no idea how larger colleges and universities or those with tighter student-to-facility/space ratios will make it work. But our conditions give me hope and confidence in our plans for on-campus instruction in the fall.
As I mentioned in my remarks at the recent town hall meeting, our conditions for on-campus instruction enable the institution to address its budgetary challenges and meet its financial obligations. If circumstances are not prohibitive, bringing students back to campus is not putting finances ahead of health, safety and welfare, yet is imperative nonetheless. It is the right thing to do from an educational standpoint for our students and it helps protect our financial well-being. If students do not return to campus, we will face budgetary challenges unlike any before. Some colleges with larger endowments or a wealthier donor base may be able to weather the loss of revenue from remote-only instruction. That would be immensely difficult for Millsaps and would require very difficult actions should we wish to remain open. But most importantly, it would be unfair to our students who long—and in some instances, need—to return to campus as long as returning is not prohibited by circumstances and local conditions.
While many plans for the fall are already in place, we’re still working through some features of our return-to-campus initiatives. The website is being reorganized for easier access to information and additional decisions and materials will be announced soon.
In the meantime, I pray you will continue to have hope for the return of our students, the success of our college and the health of our nation and world. At the conclusion of my remarks during the consecration service for Yates Chapel last week, I quoted the writer of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament who said that hope is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”
Just as our minds need the assurance of solid planning and wise decision making as we face these immensely challenging times, so our souls need the anchor of hope, now more than ever.
Thank you for your support.