As if managing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t enough, Mississippi State University had to deal with a snowstorm on the first day of the spring 2021 semester Monday, Vice President for Student Affairs Regina Hyatt told the Starkville Rotary Club at its virtual meeting Monday.
“There isn’t a playbook for how to run a university during a pandemic,” she said. “We have a little section in our crisis action team manual on pandemics, but it was like two pages long.”
Administrators’ first meeting to discuss how to respond to COVID-19 was Feb. 26, 2020, before the virus came to Mississippi, so it focused mainly on students and faculty abroad, Hyatt said.
Closing campus in March was “the surprise of a lifetime,” she said, and MSU administration had learned by the summer that the pandemic would not be gone in time to resume normal campus operations in August. In addition to strict sanitation protocols and a campus-wide face mask requirement, MSU has rented two hotels in Starkville and part of one in Columbus for students to use as quarantine facilities if they test positive for COVID-19 or are exposed to it.
Now, COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available. MSU does not have any yet but has applied to serve as a distribution site, Hyatt said.
MSU has “had some successes” in how it has handled the pandemic, such as moving all its classes online in a two-week period in March, she said.
“It was not perfect, but we did it, and our students were able to complete the spring term,” Hyatt said. “That’s a big deal because you don’t want students to get off of their academic pathway, and we worked really hard by doing things like adopting the pass-fail grading scheme, by helping to institute all of our academic support online. We did a lot of things to make sure students could finish.”
MSU also distributed $8.9 million in financial aid for students via the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) within days of receiving it, Hyatt said. The CARES Act reserved more than $14 billion for higher education institutions to cover both the institutions’ and the students’ costs due to campuses closing and classes becoming online-only.
The fall semester had a “bumpy” start but ultimately “hit a stride” when students adapted their behaviors to try to keep themselves and others safe, Hyatt said. She credited both faculty and students for keeping classrooms free of COVID transmission.
“We cannot trace a single infection of COVID-19 to any classroom experience on campus,” she said. “All the infections our students have had occurred in their social activities or in residence halls, in places where they were in less structured environments.”
COVID-19 testing has been readily available on campus, and the university has moved infected students into isolation within a couple hours of testing positive, Hyatt said.
Rotary member Eddie Keith asked Hyatt if there was a “steady flow” of students in and out of the quarantine hotels during the fall semester. Hyatt said there was an initial three-week influx that saw a “steady decline” by the fourth week of classes.
“What always happens at the start of every semester, (and) this is not new behavior, but that sort of boundary testing: ‘What can I do? Where can I do it? How can I get away with it?'” she said. “This is normal college student behavior. And then it became real clear that we were going to have some pretty significant sidebars of what was acceptable activity on campus and with our organizations.”
After a few Greek houses, student groups and residence hall floors went into quarantine, students started to take safety precautions like masks and social distancing more seriously, Hyatt said.
MSU administration learned how to successfully market public health messaging to “this generation of students,” she said.
“They’re receiving information in so many complex ways that … you have to do all the things,” she said. “You have to talk about these health behaviors in every format. You can’t just send an email. You (also) have to put up signs, be on social media, create videos, have street teams out there talking about these issues. Our students need to hear messages over and over again from lots of different sources in order for these public health issues to sink in.”
Hyatt said her two biggest mantras of leadership and decision-making throughout the pandemic have been grace and flexibility, since things often change on the fly and rarely turn out perfectly.
“We have to have grace for ourselves and for each other because no one knows how it is to be leading and managing this environment unless you’re in it,” she said.