Students are seen in front of Jackson State’s College of Science Engineering and Technology building Friday, July 27, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

On July 15, four professors from Mississippi State University sent a petition asking for a vaccine mandate, signed by hundreds of faculty, staff and students, to the State Institutions of Higher Learning, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, and Gov. Tate Reeves.

A month later, it has been “a shocking silence,” said Andrea Spain, one of the four co-authors of the letter. “Not even an acknowledgement of receipt of the letter.”

As the fall semester approaches, many faculty, staff and students at Mississippi’s public colleges and universities say this silence is emblematic of how state leadership at all levels has responded to the pandemic: Prioritizing politics and the economy over public health.

Reeves, for his part, has said he has no intention of issuing a mask mandate in schools on the K-12 level. And though the Centers for Disease Control says that vaccinations are the “leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” he has stopped short of explicitly encouraging Mississippians to get vaccinated. On Monday, Reeves tweeted, “It was recently said nationally that the delta variant was becoming a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated.’ The most recent data from Mississippi suggest the same. Talk to your doctor. Assess the risk. Do the right thing for you. Do the right thing for your family.”

“The doctors have been talking all along: Dr. Dobbs has been talking, Dr. Fauci has been talking. They’re the experts and the scientists,” Alesha Russey, an instructor at University of Southern Mississippi’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, told Mississippi Today. “Leaders don’t say, ‘Do the right thing for you.’ That’s a selfish approach. Leaders would say, ‘Let’s do this for us.’”

And the Institutions of Higher Learning, which oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities, has not released any public statements on how Mississippi’s universities should handle starting the fall semester amid the surging delta variant. The trustees haven’t met since June because, as it does most years, the board did not call a meeting in July.

The sole piece of guidance Mississippi’s public colleges and universities have received came last week from the Mississippi Department of Health, which released a memo encouraging all colleges and universities to require masks, regardless of vaccination status, in all indoor facilities. It also encouraged universities to urge students to get vaccinated.

Even though hundreds of universities across the country are requiring students to get the COVID-19 vaccine, with no state leadership pushing to do the same, Mississippi’s public colleges and universities are only asking students and faculty to wear masks in indoor facilities.

This puts students and faculty in the position of having to advocate for stronger safety measures.

“The only way to be truly safe is to do a vaccine mandate,” said Clark Hensley, a junior computer science major and chair of MSU’s chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America. “Not doing so leaves an opening for a potentially life threatening outbreak.”

Last fall, all eight universities implemented comprehensive plans to keep faculty, staff and students safe: Courses were moved online, in-person class sizes were reduced, and the fall semester was shortened to prevent the spread of coronavirus during Thanksgiving break. Those measures were taken in part because the IHL convened a task force to create recommendations for the universities.

“Honestly we did better than I thought we would last year,” said Joshua Sharp, an associate professor of pharmacology at University of Mississippi. “We actually were pretty responsive when it came to on-campus testing and quarantine policy seemed to do a pretty good job — not a great job, not a perfect job, but a pretty good job of managing outbreaks.”

Many of those measures won’t be taken this semester, despite all-time high case numbers and a delta variant that is more prominent in college-aged people.

With no uniform recommended plan, Mississippi’s public colleges and universities are responding to the rise in cases in a motley of ways. Some schools have adopted campus-wide mask mandates but are not requiring students to socially distance in classrooms or other campus facilities. At East Mississippi Community College, for example, “all meeting rooms, classrooms, open facilities, on-campus events, and auditoriums can resume 100% capacity,” according to a recent memo, though self-serve options will not be available in dining halls and “enhanced cleaning” of facilities is required.

Other schools are trying to encourage students to get vaccinated by offering perks in lieu of a mandate. In Ellisville, students at Jones College who sign up to get vaccinated on campus will be entered into a raffle to win free or discounted tuition for one semester.

USM has also announced a raffle program to incentivize students to get vaccinated in late July. Through the weekly drawings, students can win prizes ranging from a Barnes & Noble gift voucher or a parking decal to free fall tuition.

“The best way for our students to stay healthy, stay connected, and stay in class this fall is by getting a COVID-19 vaccine,” said Dr. Dee Dee Anderson, USM’s vice president for student affairs. “I urge all of our students to do their part and get vaccinated for COVID-19 now, if they haven’t already done so.”

But many faculty and staff at USM wish the administration would enact more safety protocols.

Over the last couple weeks, representatives from USM’s faculty senate, staff councils and chapters of the American Association of University Professors met with President Rodney Bennett and other administration officials to advocate for more expansive safety protocols, such as mandating masks in all indoor facilities, requiring the COVID-19 vaccine once it receives full FDA approval and allowing faculty to change the delivery method of their courses as they deem fit.

Yet when USM released its updated protocols on Aug. 4, it included just one of the coalition’s recommendations — wearing face masks.

“We appreciate and are very much in support of the administration’s significant efforts to incentivize student vaccination, as well as the University’s efforts to combat misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and vaccinations,” Brian LaPierre, the president of USM’s faculty senate, wrote in an email to members. “We were disappointed, however, that the only Faculty Senate recommendation that was reflected in the revised protocols was the requirement of face coverings.”

Following another virtual meeting, Bennett last Thursday agreed to let faculty aged 65 and older teach online “for a few weeks,” Denis Weisenberg, president-elect of USM’s faculty senate, told Mississippi Today.

At University of Mississippi, Sharp, the professor of pharmacology, said faculty has received few campus-wide communications about what the administration is doing to keep staff and faculty safe. He received a notice that the school would be temporarily requiring masks as well as one from Dean Noel Wilkins, informing faculty they could only switch their courses to online with special permission from their department chair.

Meanwhile, COVID cases continue to rise, and school starts in 11 days.

“As we come back, we were all hoping that this was behind us,” Sharp said, “but the recent surge in cases has made it clear it’s not.”

“There is still time to turn it around,” he added, “and I know that there are various faculty and administrators working and talking about what kind of response we can have — but ultimately the power lies in the hands of the administrators and the policies they decide to implement.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.