August 8, 2020 6:00:34 PM
A petition for Mississippi State University not to hold in-person classes gathered more than 230 signatures by Saturday after concerned faculty started circulating it Wednesday, along with an open letter to administration declaring the current plans to reopen campus insufficient to protect the MSU community from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"Many of us hoped that it would be possible to return to in-person instruction and a semblance of normalcy for the coming semester," reads the letter signed by seven faculty members. "Unfortunately, it is clear that a return to in-person classes at this moment will almost certainly lead to avoidable sickness and death."
MSU Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter said the administration will likely issue an official response to the letter sometime next week.
The letter points to the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Mississippi. As of 6 p.m. Friday, there were 66,646 confirmed positive cases and 1,874 deaths, with 1,210 new cases and 26 new deaths since Thursday, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health website.
Oktibbeha County has seen 1,118 cases and 38 deaths.
Andrea Spain, an associate professor of English and one of the seven faculty members to sign the letter, pointed out in a Friday email to The Dispatch that 72 Mississippians died of COVID-19 in the time the petition had been available for signatures, which was less than 48 hours.
The other six faculty who signed the letter and started the petition are Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration James Chamberlain, Assistant Professor of Geosciences Brian Williams, Assistant Library Professor DeeDee Baldwin, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion Anthony Neal, Associate Professor of Anthropology Shane Miller, Associate Professor of Sociology Margaret Hagerman and Associate Professor of English Eric Vivier.
Students are scheduled to move into residence halls Aug. 14, and classes are set to begin Aug. 17. Salter said the university's reopening policies are still subject to change before then.
Planned safety measures include requiring protective face coverings, monitoring students' temperatures and enforcing social distancing in classrooms.
Concerns and requests
The MSU campus closed from March to May after the disease became a global pandemic, and all classes were conducted online. The letter requests a return to completely virtual learning for the entire fall semester, except in cases of required "lab-based or hands-on" instruction, such as veterinary medicine.
The letter asks MSU to restrict the number of students on campus to students in those classes "and/or those needing accommodation and resources for their immediate safety and success."
Allowing the return of thousands of students to campus and the surrounding community will add to the existing strain on Mississippi's health care system, the letter states, possibly jeopardizing the health of rural communities. The disproportionate impact of the virus on Black Mississippians could increase as well, "both through workplace exposure and through the spread of the virus to the surrounding region," the letter states.
The letter also raises the concern that certain groups of faculty and staff will face an especially high risk of contracting COVID-19, such as custodians and other staff that are required to be in "multiple rooms per day," as well as graduate teaching assistants, lecturers and instructors that will be required to teach classes in person.
"Those facing the greatest risks of exposure through an increase of student contact have had little say in the decision-making process, have less job security, more limited benefits, and are not being compensated for their heightened vulnerability," the letter states.
Salter confirmed that no university employees will receive "hazard pay." He also said all aspects of the MSU community from faculty to students have been able to participate in the decision-making process ever since COVID-19 became a concern in February.
Administrators such as Provost David Shaw and Vice President of Student Affairs Regina Hyatt have been in regular communication with both faculty and staff, and the MSU Student Association has "had a seat at the table" as well, Salter said.
"This has been a transparent process, it's been an open process, and there has been adequate opportunity since February for people to have an idea of where we were going," he said.
The university has rented two Starkville hotels, the Comfort Suites on Russell Street and the Hampton Inn on Blackjack Road, to use as quarantine facilities for students who live on campus and test positive for COVID-19.
Renting the hotels cost the university $1.2 million from its $8.9 million allocation of relief funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Another $8.9 million went directly to students to cover their costs resulting from the campus closing last semester.
Hotel staff will have the option to work at other hotels in the market, while MSU will staff the hotels with employees from the departments of Housing and Residence Life and custodial services. Employees of the Longest Student Health Center will monitor quarantined students' health on-site.
Salter previously told The Dispatch that administration believes the 155 rooms in the two hotels will be enough. The faculty letter counters the rooms would serve less than 1 percent of the student population.
The signatures on the petition range from MSU faculty, staff and students to members of the Starkville community even elsewhere. Some faculty that signed it declined to comment on their reasons for doing so when contacted by The Dispatch on Friday.
However, enough members of the community expressed concerns to State Rep. Cheikh Taylor (D-Starkville) that he felt compelled to sign it, he said.
"I think that Mississippi State will do a wonderful job trying to follow policies (recommended by health care professionals)," Taylor said. "I'm sure they'll do an excellent job with that, but my constituents are crying out for MSU and also the public school system to give it a little more time."
Salter emphasized that all public universities in Mississippi are subject to the state Institutions of Higher Learning, which has aimed for the resumption of in-person classes. MSU will have some online classes and some that are a "hybrid" of in-person and online, but IHL has not suggested "a different direction other than in-person classes where possible and where advisable," Salter said.
"The direction that we have received from the state college board has been toward in-person classes, so until we receive guidance that differs from that, we're going to continue to pursue that," he said.
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