The College and COVID — a Story of Commitment and Resilience during 2020

With cleaning supplies at every entrance, educational signage plastered throughout each building and the establishment of a dedicated quarantine and isolation residence hall, the Millsaps College campus looked remarkably different this past semester. The students, faculty and staff looked different too — faces covered by purple masks and lots more space (at least six feet, to be exact) between everyone. New ways of holding longstanding ceremonies and events, like a virtual first year orientation and town hall meetings with students, faculty and staff, rounded out a truly surreal calendar year.

Like every college and university across the globe, Millsaps College was impacted by COVID-19. But unlike many colleges and universities, Millsaps was able to return to in-person classes in the middle of August and experienced relatively low positive case rates — 58 total positive student cases and five total positive faculty/staff cases as of December 8, 2020 and no one with serious symptoms — while many colleges and universities in Mississippi and across the country tracked numbers in the triple digits and higher. (View the most current COVID-19 numbers at Millsaps by visiting the college’s COVID-19 dashboard. View nationwide college and university numbers by visiting the New York Times.)

While the college’s small size did impact its low percentage of positive cases, so did a lot of advance planning, preparation and a commitment by all members of the college community to strict COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. As the potential impact of the pandemic became evident in March, college administration began to make changes to protect student, faculty and staff health as well as the mission of the institution. The remaining spring classes transitioned to remote instruction and college Information Technology staff worked diligently to supply computer hardware and software subscriptions to those who needed it. Students were given the option of choosing either standard letter grades or a credit/no credit option for courses taken during the spring 2020 semester. And importantly, President Rob Pearigen announced planning groups ranging from health-related matters to finances and community life to develop long-term strategic plans in anticipation of a safe fall 2020 semester.

In addition to staying current on all guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Mississippi State Department of Health, the planning group formed to address the impact of the virus on the health and safety of the Millsaps community quickly partnered with Jackson-area neighbors the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) in an advisory capacity. UMMC officials reviewed the college’s plans and offered advice and information on an as-needed basis, helping the college better understand and address the many elements of protecting the campus community against the virus. “We are thankful for the great relationship we have with our colleagues across the street at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and fortunate to benefit from their experience and expertise,” said Pearigen.

How was the semester different? Students were given the ability to choose between attending class in-person or online, depending on their personal circumstance, with 80% of the college’s classes taught in person. Some of the many other changes included:

  • Class time was reduced slightly to provide extra time between classes and minimize crowding in hallways and classrooms.
  • Office hours, advising and meetings were held remotely or in large spaces to allow for social distancing.
  • Faculty members were provided with personal teaching kits, including whiteboard markers, erasers and other class teaching tools.
  • Indoor seating capacity was reduced and teaching spaces had dedicated entrance and exits.
  • All community members were responsible for daily self-monitoring of symptoms, and the college instituted the use of the Campus Clear app to assist in this purpose.
  • Facemasks were provided and required, and faculty distributed sanitizing wipes at the conclusion of each class.
  • The dining hall featured complete meals at each station and self-serve options were discontinued. Seating within the cafeteria was redistributed to ensure social distancing, and only students were allowed to dine in the space.
  • Classes were held outdoors when possible, sometimes under a large tent constructed in the Bowl specifically for outdoor social distancing.

Although students, faculty and staff were all impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, the Millsaps community was still able to have some fun. Homecoming activities were celebrated virtually and long-time traditions like Trunk-or-Treat and the Diwali celebration were conducted with specific social distancing protocols. New events like outdoor movie nights and the Millsaps Mic Madness karaoke concert were made available to provide students with safe but fun entertainment.  Varsity athletes were allowed to practice in masks in preparation for the resumption of competition in January.

Students and faculty alike faced challenges of learning and teaching through a pandemic. Millsaps junior Onyx Magno credited college faculty for their flexibility and commitment to the student experience this past semester. “Due to limited physical interactions, the online resources that many professors have switched to have helped us learn in different ways, and they are recording lessons that we are able to watch any time and at our own pace,” she said. “I have always appreciated my professors, but this semester I appreciate them times ten.”

“Our community came come together — distanced and masked — and continued both the academic and residential aspects of our college that make Millsaps a great place to be,” said Pearigen. “In spite of enormous challenges, because of the determination and dedication of our community, we were able to come home to Millsaps this fall. For that I am proud and grateful.”

Stay up-to-date with the college’s COVID-19 response, including its plans for Spring 2021, by visiting the Millsaps COVID-19 community updates and resources webpage.

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