Student Center on the campus of Jackson State University. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The coronavirus pandemic was mentioned just a handful of times during the Institutions of Higher Learning’s nearly two-hour-long meeting Thursday, even though classes at Mississippi’s public universities started this week amid the worst wave yet of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sole discussion of the pandemic from the 12-member board was limited to a request on the finance agenda to suspend the IHL’s regular approval process for contracts and other agreements relating to the universities’ “ability to promptly and effectively provide for the safety and health of … students, employees and guests in dealing with the Covid19 pandemic.”

The IHL meeting happened the same day that the State Board of Education, which oversees Mississippi’s K-12 schools, unanimously voted to allow school districts to implement hybrid learning through Oct. 31 due to the increase in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children.

According to data from the Mississippi Department of Health, last week 20,334 students were in quarantine across 803 schools. More than 7,400 students, teachers and staff had tested positive for the virus.

Because the universities are not required to report COVID cases to MSDH the same way K-12 schools are, it will be difficult to track the spread of the virus on campus or in the surrounding communities. Last year, the fall semester saw two outbreaks at Mississippi University for Women and UM. All eight universities had implemented comprehensive plans to keep faculty, staff and students safe that included moving courses online, reducing in-person class sizes, and shortening the fall semester to prevent the spread of coronavirus during Thanksgiving break.

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. All universities are requiring students to wear masks in indoor facilities due to a directive from MSDH.

None of the universities are requiring students or faculty to get vaccinated, the best prevention strategy against COVID-19, despite hundreds of faculty across the state requesting they do so. At University of Southern Mississippi, nearly 200 faculty have requested that classes move online due to the surge in COVID cases.

Classes started this week at MUW, Alcorn State University, Delta State University, Mississippi State University, and Mississippi Valley State University.

At the end of the meeting, the eight university presidents presented updates to the board. Mention of the COVID-19 pandemic was limited. ASU president Felicia Nave and MUW president Nora Miller briefly touched on the vaccine clinics that are being hosted on campus.

“It feels close to normal,” Miller told the trustees.

Jackson State University is rewarding students who show proof they’ve been vaccinated with a $1,000 housing credit, President Thomas Hudson said. MVSU President Jerryl Briggs and MSU President Mark Keenum presented the results of campus surveys. At MVSU, Briggs said 70% of students living on campus have reported being vaccinated. Keenum said that of the 17,000 students who completed MSU’s survey, 52% reported being vaccinated.

“We don’t know if that’s fully vaccinated,” Keenum said, “but we do know they’ve had at least one shot.”

DSU President William LaForge was the only one to present COVID case numbers to the board.

“The climate so far with respect to COVID cases is good and healthy,” he told the board. “We only have one or two students and employees who have tested positive in the last couple of weeks.”

Rodney Bennett, USM’s president, told the trustees he could not think of a time when students were more excited to return to campus.

“I am proud of them for embracing health protocols,” he said. “They want to be in-person all year … and I want that for them too.”

University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce referenced the COVID-19 pandemic just one time during his 11-minute-long update. He told the trustees that he is working on getting the marching band fully vaccinated so they don’t miss any games this upcoming football season.

Afterwards, Boyce sought to turn the mic over to his colleague, University of Mississippi Medical Center Vice Chancellor Dr. LouAnn Woodward.

“I don’t know if Dr. Woodward is on, but if she is, I’d love her to make some comments about UMMC,” he said over Zoom.

“I’m sorry, she is off handling our COVID response elsewhere on campus,” a representative from UMMC responded.

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

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