Mississippi State University has rented two Starkville hotels for the entire fall semester in order for students who live in residence halls on campus to quarantine if they test positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus.
In a newsletter sent Tuesday night to MSU faculty, Provost and Executive Vice President David Shaw said it was “more cost-efficient” for the university to rent the Comfort Suites on Russell Street and the Hampton Inn on Blackjack Road than to set aside residence halls. The two hotels have a combined total of 155 rooms.
“These are ideal facilities for this purpose, since they have independent rooms with dedicated bathrooms for each person,” Shaw said.
Health experts recommend a 14-day quarantine if a person tests positive for COVID-19 or is aware of exposure to it, regardless of the presence of physical symptoms.
The rental of the hotels is the latest development in MSU’s plan to bring students back to campus this month. Safety measures include requiring protective face coverings, monitoring students’ temperatures and enforcing social distancing in classrooms.
Shaw chairs the Safe Start Task Force on the state Institute of Higher Learning. He was unavailable for comment Wednesday, but Vice President of Student Affairs Regina Hyatt told The Dispatch that MSU will staff the hotels with employees from the departments of Housing and Residence Life and custodial services.
“Our goal in providing these isolation rooms is to make sure students in quarantine are taken care of in a manner consistent with their residence hall experience and that we keep students in the residence halls safe,” Housing and Residence Life Executive Director Dei Allard said. “Frankly, our responsibilities for the welfare of our students (aren’t) changing, only the venue in which those responsibilities are met.”
Employees of the Longest Student Health Center will monitor quarantined students’ health on-site, Hyatt said.
The option to quarantine in hotels will only be available to students who live in residence halls, not to students who live off-campus or in fraternity or sorority houses, she added.
Shaw’s Tuesday newsletter said he consulted with “administrators and health officers” from three area hospitals: OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville, Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle in Columbus and North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, which has a facility in West Point.
“All three pointed out that the virus is not severely impacting young people and encouraged us to focus efforts strongly on our faculty and staff who are more at-risk,” Shaw said.
The health professionals also recommended MSU keep infected students in Starkville so they do not transmit the virus to their families at home or risk bringing it back to campus with them, Shaw said.
Students will begin moving into residence halls on Friday. Each student will receive a bag of personal protective equipment upon arrival, including disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and a face mask.
Monitoring students’ health
Renting the hotels cost the university $1.2 million from its allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funding. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided more than $14 billion to higher education institutions nationwide.
MSU’s share was $17.8 million, with $8.9 million going directly to students to cover their costs resulting from the campus closing last semester, and the other $8.9 million covering the university’s costs related to the pandemic.
The hotels’ regular staff will be able to transfer to other hotels in the market either permanently or until the end of MSU’s partnership with Peachtree Hotel Group, the corporate owner of both Comfort Suites and the Hampton Inn, Peachtree Vice President of Sales Tim Horan said.
Peachtree has always had a working relationship with MSU, he said.
“They came to us with a need, and we had the only options available that can really help them with this particular situation,” Horan said. “It helps both the community and the student body, which at the end of the day fuels most of the business in the market to begin with.”
Confirmed cases and deaths of COVID-19 have been rising both locally and statewide in the past several weeks. Mississippi State Department of Health reported 1,245 new cases and 51 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 63,444 cases and 1,804 deaths.
On Tuesday, Gov. Tate Reeves ordered a two-week statewide mask mandate, and last week he added Lowndes County to his growing list of individual counties where masks and limited gatherings are required.
Starkville and Oktibbeha County both enacted indefinite mask mandates in July.
Some MSU faculty declined to comment on the hotel rentals when contacted by The Dispatch on Wednesday.
However, Assistant Professor of English Dhanashree Thorat said the announcement left her and other faculty members with several questions. Schools reopening in other states, including Georgia and Indiana, have made national news for students and teachers testing positive for COVID-19 and having to quarantine within the first few days.
“Those outbreaks were big, like 250 students, and it seems like the hotel capacity that the university has rented out, 155 (rooms), is just not going to be sufficient,” Thorat said.
She also said she and other faculty were not aware that the hotels would be staffed with MSU employees instead of regular hotel workers, and she wondered if MSU employees would face repercussions if they decided to opt out of working at the hotels for safety reasons.
When asked about both concerns, MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter said the university is “not going to engage hypotheticals.”
“We have a plan and it’s a solid plan,” he said. “A lot of thought has gone into it, and obviously a lot of expense. If we have any problem that’s unforeseen, obviously we will convene and put together Plan B, but at this point we think Plan A is more than sufficient.”
Mike Highfield, a finance professor and the chair of real estate finance at MSU’s College of Business, said renting hotels “probably is a good planning strategy” for the university.
“I have to trust the administration has done the numbers, and it’s a situation where financially it makes more sense for them to rent the hotel rooms for potential than keeping a dormitory set aside,” Highfield said.
Meanwhile, reserving a residence hall for quarantines made more sense at Mississippi University for Women, President Nora Miller told The Dispatch. MUW has a much smaller student population than MSU, and keeping them on campus will make it easier to provide them with meals and monitor their health, she said.
“We’d prefer if they could go home without presenting a risk to their family members, but if not, we have space here on campus for them,” Miller said.
Tess Vrbin was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.