Human resources sent its first announcement of the spring semester the Monday before classes started at Delta State University: In one day, seven faculty and staff members tested positive for COVID-19. 

By Friday, Jan. 8, that number grew to 25 — a significant figure for the small university in Cleveland. 

The sudden increase in cases, one faculty member said, was “chilling.”

Across Mississippi, students and faculty are returning to campus for a spring semester they’d hoped would be close to normal. Officials at the Mississippi State Department of Health are warning they will bring high case numbers with them. 

“We do anticipate there will be numerous cases and transmission when college students return based on the current level of transmission we are seeing,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said last week in a statement to Mississippi Today. 

Some schools are taking more precautions than others. Jackson State University is moving classes online for the next two weeks, and requiring students to get a negative COVID test before moving into the dorms. 

Delta State, despite its higher case numbers, is moving ahead with in-person classes. Still, the feeling on campus is far from normal, said a faculty member, who asked to remain anonymous because he does not have tenure. On Monday morning, campus buildings, which are closed to the public, seemed “pretty abandoned.” The grassy quadrangle, the usual student hangout, was empty. 

For students and faculty, this wave of COVID has brought more frustration and uncertainty to a situation that was already confusing to navigate. Conflicting guidance from officials hasn’t helped: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shortened the quarantine time, but health officials in Mississippi are warning that omicron will overwhelm hospitals. Many students don’t want to return to online learning, which they found arduous and fruitless, but omicron has also led them to wonder if their schools could be doing more. 

“I appreciate that I can still go to school and be in person but it’s like, I don’t know what the risk is,” said Izzie McAllister, a senior at Millsaps College who moved back into her dorm over the weekend. “Everybody is getting it. It might just be safer to stay at home even if we all want to go be with our friends.” 

Other students feel more indifferent. At Mississippi State University,Hannah Blankenship, a senior who edits the campus newspaper, said her peers want as close to a normal semester as possible. 

“I feel like everyone is pretty tired of the whole COVID thing,” she said. “For a lot of students it’s not even on their radar.” 

For the most part, Mississippi colleges and universities have held classes in-person since summer 2021. Toward the end of the fall semester, some schools, like MSU, even lessened their mask requirements for vaccinated students and employees. Over the weekend, MSU announced it will require masks inside all university buildings through Feb. 1. 

Ellie Herndon, a sophomore at MSU, is moving back into her dorm this coming weekend. She said omicron has caused her the kind of fear and anxiety she felt during the very first wave of the virus, when campus shut down. She wants a normal college semester, but she understands that won’t happen if her peers don’t do their part. 

“As much as all of us in college would love to do away with all of this — the masks, quarantining, all that stuff — I just don’t think that until we take it seriously that it will ever go away, that we’ll get a chance at normal,” she said. 

At the University of Mississippi, a graduate student said he wished students and faculty had more leeway to respond to omicron in a way they felt safest. If students are permitted to go to parties without masks, he said that his professors should have the choice to teach virtually. But the university has not given many faculty that option. 

“I don’t expect the school to say, ‘we’re gonna all be online,’ because there’s a profit incentive to have students on campus,” he said. “I just expected some wiggle room for the professors and students to complete their courses however they think is best.” 

This student, who asked to remain anonymous because he’s applying to doctoral programs, told Mississippi Today that, “at this point in the pandemic, I don’t know if it’s apathy or just acceptance, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m going to get COVID at some point,” he said. 

Another thing this student knows for certain? After this semester, “I’m moving somewhere where hopefully they take COVID a bit more seriously,” he said. “Or at least do more to protect their students or citizens.” 

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

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