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Northeast Mississippi universities, colleges anticipate return to pre-COVID operations this fall

TUPELO For months, students and faculty at colleges across the country have adjusted to a new normal. Starting next semester, they’ll be returning to the old normal … mostly.

Institutions of higher learning across Northeast Mississippi anticipate a return to pre-COVID operations for the upcoming fall 2021 semester. In some cases, this will represent a drastic shift in the day-to-day life of the people who teach and study there.

Ole Miss

The University of Mississippi (UM) announced on Feb. 26 it intends to offer a fully in-person, on-campus experience in fall 2021.

Dr. Noel Wilkin, UM Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, said the university began planning in January for the upcoming fall semester, starting with course offerings as departments prepare for class registration.

The university’s Future Planning Task Force has operated throughout the pandemic, allowing faculty, staff and students to weigh in on decisions made about the overall academic experience on campus. Most recently, the group has turned its attention to the fall 2021 semester and how it will look. They share their recommendations with Chancellor Dr. Glenn Boyce, who makes the final decision.

UM administrators are optimistic about vaccine rollout and the public’s eagerness to take advantage of appointments.

“We think that people getting the vaccine is our fastest path back to that full operation status,” Wilkin said.

Whether face masks are required on campus during the fall 2021 semester will depend on guidance from state and local agencies, Wilkin said, but “our hope is that we will return to an environment where we won’t have to wear masks or adhere to protocols to prevent the virus from spreading.”

UM’s enrollment dropped 2.7% in fall 2020, going from 22,273 students in fall 2019 to 21,676 in 2020.

Enrollment has decreased for each of the past four years after peaking at 24,250 students in 2016, so the university’s goal is to increase enrollment this fall.

“Students, if they believe they can have a college experience that they have thought about, expected and predicted for many years, then I think that might sway their decision-making process,” Wilkin said, but “how that’ll affect overall campus enrollment here or at other places is difficult to predict.”

UM has no plans to shift any of its courses that would normally be offered face-to-face to any hybrid or virtual formats, Wilkin said. One positive change the pandemic has brought about is faculty having designed their courses in a way that enables them to respond to any sort of disruption, from power outages to weather-related closings.

Wilkin said he appreciates the incredible efforts by faculty and staff to keep UM’s courses, mission and research on track throughout the pandemic while remaining hopeful for the future.

“We are really looking forward to getting back to full capacity and having the campus experience that I know students love, faculty love and our community loves,” Wilkin said. “We can see it off in the distance here. It’s getting closer day by day, and we are truly excited about getting back to that environment.”

Mississippi State

Mississippi State University is also planning for a return to normalcy this fall, according to Dr. David Shaw, MSU Provost and Executive Vice President.

“In our planning process, we are looking to very closely mirror what we did in fall of 2019,” Shaw said. “That’s been the basis in terms of expectations, in terms of the number of face-to-face classes, classroom density, those kinds of things. We’re working off the baseline assumption that we will be back to at least that type of normal.”

One pandemic-related adjustment that will remain this fall is a 20-minute space between classes instead of 10 minutes. During the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, it allowed for a lower density of students in the hallways and gave them additional travel time with some classes being held in nontraditional spaces.

If MSU did need to revert to previous COVID-19 precautions because of a spike in cases, it would make that shift easier for the university, according to Shaw.

MSU has a COVID Task Force made up of students, faculty, staff and medical representatives that meets weekly. The group has worked alongside President Mark E. Keenum to develop plans to fully reopen the school.

Contingency plans always remain on the table: from arranging for alternative teaching spaces for social distancing to continuing to sanitize classrooms or require masks, the university will do whatever is necessary, Shaw said, but the basic goal is returning to normal.

When asked about the potential need to continue with smaller class sizes and requiring masks in the fall, Shaw said school officials will closely monitor CDC guidance. He added that, “based on most of the conversation that’s going on nationally and with the medical experts,” they don’t expect to require either preventative measure.

While Shaw said the school is shooting to have roughly 95% of its classes to be face-to-face, he said if the pandemic has taught school officials anything, it’s the need for flexibility and a willingness to experiment with new forms of education.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of experimentation on how we can actually improve the educational experience for students through some of the technology that we’ve taken advantage of,” he said.

The university has used the pandemic “as an opportunity rather than a challenge to do something that maybe it would’ve taken a lot longer to get to,” Shaw said.

MSU has increased its enrollment for the past six years, managing to grow even during the pandemic. In fall 2020, MSU’s enrollment increase by 3.4% from 22,226 in fall 2019 to 22,986 and surpassed UM’s total enrollment for the first time since 2010.

Shaw expects that trend to continue in fall 2021.

While MSU looks to return to normal in-person instruction in the fall, most of its summer classes will be offered online, Shaw said, citing record enrollment in summer 2020’s online-only summer classes.

“The experience that our students had was that whether they were home or whether they were on a co-op, internship or whatever they were, they could still stay enrolled in classes and they took advantage of it,” Shaw said. “We’ve really taken that as a strong indicator that for summer and for our winter intersession that we offered back in December and January that the strong preference there is for a majority of it to be online.”

Community colleges

With smaller campuses and greater flexibility than larger universities, Northeast Mississippi Community College and Itawamba Community College have operated very close to normal during the spring 2021 semester.

Northeast Mississippi Community College (NEMCC) announced in Oct. 2020 that it was planning a “back to normal” schedule for spring 2021 while continuing to offer options like Zoom, online and hybrid classes and requiring face masks. That will continue this fall.

Dr. Michelle Baragona, Vice President of Instruction, said students will continue wearing masks in classroom settings until it’s safe to go without them.

The biggest change in the fall semester should be a major reduction in the amount of classes that are quarantined due to exposure to the virus. Class sizes, currently capped at 25 students for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, may also open up further, but Baragona said that will be decided closer to the start of the semester.

She also anticipates more people will also be allowed to attend on-campus events like Campus Country shows and cultural arts presentations.

“Compared to the previous fall, we will be more of a normalized schedule with the number of seated classes we have,” Baragona said. “So that will be a reduction in the number of remote classes or hybrid classes where they do part of the time online.”

But most classes have already returned to in-person instruction for spring 2021, as “most of the faculty and students opted to take seated classes,” Baragona said.

NEMCC’s enrollment fell almost 12% in the fall, from 3,680 students in fall 2019 to 3,243 in fall 2020. Baragona attributes the decrease to starting the fall semester three weeks earlier than typical because of COVID-19 precautions and the pandemic in general.

Ray Scott, Vice President of Student Services for NEMCC, said he fully expects enrollment to increase this fall, and the college is anticipating and working toward having a “very good fall semester.”

“As far as our recruiting services, we’ve had a lot of good contact with people that are excited about coming to school in the fall,” Scott said. “I think with vaccinations and some of the restrictions that will be lifted hopefully by then, we think this COVID situation will narrow itself before August.”

Likewise, ICC came close to returning to normal this spring, with many more in-person classes and events held than in fall 2020.

“We anticipate being so close to normal you really can’t tell it’s not normal,” ICC President Dr. Jay Allen said, with the caveat that there may still be capacity restrictions on facilities and stadiums.

As for student activities, Allen hopes the limitations placed on them during the 2020-21 school year “will be removed and we will be back to full capacity for engagement opportunities for our students.”

For now, ICC will continue to require masks on campus and at events, but Allen hopes the campus can be “a non-mask environment” in the fall.

“It’s not that far away, but it really is a pretty good ways away in the realm of how fast things change with COVID,” Allen said. “We’ll kind of see where things are as we move through the summer headed towards fall.”

By spring 2021, most of ICC’s classes had moved back to face-to-face instruction, and that will remain the same this fall.

“We always hold that technology in reserve to come in and do what we need to if COVID should spike back up,” Allen said. “We have the capabilities if we need to use the technology in the classroom with Zoom, we can do that at really a moment’s notice.”

ICC’s enrollment fell about 1.5% in the fall, down from 4,768 in fall 2019 to 4,696 in fall 2020, but Allen expects enrollment will be up again for the coming school year.

A positive early sign is that 159 students signed up day one for orientation compared to 119 last year.

“We’re really excited about that,” Allen said. “There’s a long time to go for us enrollment-wise between now and fall, but it is our goal to be up and we hope that will be the case.”

Allen said he remains amazed and extremely proud of the college’s faculty, staff and students for making the “altered environment” work over the past year and a half as they work to return to normal.

Absentee ballots available for Tupelo primary elections

TUPELO • Registered voters in Tupelo can now vote by absentee in party primaries for this year’s municipal elections.

Residents can either call the municipal clerk’s office to request an absentee ballot by mail or physically go to City Hall to cast an absentee ballot during normal operating hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m on Monday through Friday.

Kim Hanna, Tupelo’s municipal clerk, said that while qualified voters can cast an absentee vote by mail or in-person, she would recommend people vote absentee in City Hall to make the process simpler and quicker.

Tupelo precinct map

Hanna said that if anyone is cautious about going inside of City Hall because of COVID-19 that city employees are still taking safety precautions.

“We still are conducting ourselves (in City Hall) as if the city is still under the mask mandate,” Hanna said. “We try to give everybody the ability to come in to vote that does not meet the criteria for voting by mail.”

The last day for people to vote by absentee in-person is Saturday, April 3 at City Hall, which will be open from 8 a.m. to noon.

Sample ballot for Tupelo primary elections

Mississippi has some of the most restrictive absentee voting laws in the nation and has no early voting system. State law requires voters to cast a regular ballot in-person on election day, unless they qualify for one of around 10 excuses to vote by absentee.

Some registered voters are eligible to vote by an absentee ballot if they are over 65 years old, permanently or temporarily disabled, a college student or will be out of town on the date of the election.

When voting by absentee, voters must choose to either vote in the Republican primary or the Democratic primary.

City precinct locations

“When we ask you which ballot you want it’s not meant to be offensive or to pry,” Hanna previously said. “It’s just meant to get people the correct ballot.”

Mississippi does not require voters to register with a political party, so voters are able to switch which primaries they participate in from one election cycle to the next. However, voters are not allowed to vote in the primary election for one party then vote in the opposite party’s runoff election during the same election cycle.

If voters in Ward 6, for example, vote in the Democratic primary, they will not be allowed to participate in a potential runoff election for the Republican primary.

Hanna encourages voters to view the sample ballot before voting by absentee and bring a valid form of photo ID such as a driver’s license or a passport.

If voters have any specific questions about whether they are qualified to vote by absentee or which ward they are located in, they are encouraged to contact the municipal clerk’s office at (662)-841-6513.

Mississippi's marijuana program might be overturned, but dozens of companies are starting anyway

JACKSON • Dozens of medical marijuana businesses and nonprofits are popping up around Mississippi even though the state’s regulatory system won’t be ready for months, and despite the fact that the Mississippi Supreme Court might strike down the voter-approved program.

Companies can’t legally grow, process or dispense medical pot until they obtain state licenses, which likely won’t be issued until August. But already more than 90 businesses and nonprofits have registered with the state or reserved a name, according to a recent review of Mississippi Secretary of State records.

Among them: Mississippi Marijuana Doctor, Cannabis Infused Solutions, Cloud 9 Cannabis, Delta Dank and Alien Ganja Farms.

The large number of early registrants underscores the potential economic boost from marijuana legalization after Mississippi voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 65 in November.

Other states witnessed rapid business growth after medical marijuana passed and state oversight programs began. In Oklahoma, for instance, medical marijuana sales cleared $1 billion within about two years of legalization with more than 9,000 marijuana businesses registered as of late 2020. In New Mexico, medical marijuana grew to a $200-million industry last year.

Ken Newburger, executive director of the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Association, said his group already has a “couple hundred” associate members consisting of people hoping to enter the fledgling industry. About 1,000 people reached out to the association in the first two months since it was founded in December, he said, which was “way more” interest than he expected.

Mississippians have seen how cannabis boomed in other states, Newburger said, and “they want to be a part of that.”

Jessica Rice, executive director of the Mississippi Cannabis Trade Association, said her group has also received hundreds of inquiries from Mississippians interested in marijuana, and recently held a virtual meeting attended by about 65 people.

The trade association has so far done a mix of policy work – opposing a proposed legislative medical marijuana program, for example – and helping educate people about the cannabis business basics, from obtaining seeds, to strategies for growing pot indoors and outdoors, to starting an LLC.

Rice said part of the group’s mission is to demonstrate how the marijuana industry is professionally operated: “We’re not advocating for Mississippi to become a huge Woodstock, (people) roaming around the streets high.”

Most of the businesses created thus far plan to grow or dispense medical pot, the filings indicate. They include Wild Oats Cannabis Company registered in Tupelo, Top Shelf Cannabis Company in West Point and Flyway Medical Marijuana in Oxford.

Sam Humphrey registered a handful of marijuana businesses with the state including Jackson Cannabis Company and Crooked Letter Cannabis. Humphrey runs Fertile Ground Farms, an urban regenerative farm in Jackson, and said it only made sense to consider marijuana given his experience with fruits and vegetables, though he noted he doesn’t plan to grow pot on his city farming land.

“As a farmer, it’d be unwise to neglect another potential crop,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a plant. It’s a special plant, but it’s a plant.”

Humphrey also recently obtained a license to grow hemp, which belongs to the same species as marijuana and has several uses, but lacks the psychoactive compound that gets pot smokers high. The Legislature allowed hemp growing last year, and already at least 250 farmers have signed up to grow through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Marijuana and hemp, Humphrey said, use the “same growing infrastructure, the same harvesting equipment, the same processing and drying infrastructure, and the same packaging, basically.” As a farmer it only made sense to explore growing both, he said, even though it’s unclear if Mississippi’s marijuana program will get off the ground anytime soon.

Some Mississippians are seeking out business niches in the marijuana industry that have nothing to do with farming or selling the plant.

Sheryl Jefferson of Lawrence County is CEO and co-founder of the Cannabis Nurse Institute, which plans to teach nurses and other medical personnel in the state about marijuana so that they can knowledgeably treat patients.

The company is developing a self-paced and interactive online course, she said, which will cover the basic laws and regulations of cannabis, as well as various nursing guidelines surrounding the drug. It will be open to nurses with at least a year of experience.

“If you’re going to have patients on (cannabis), you need to be knowledgeable about the process,” said Jefferson, who is also a nurse.

Several nonprofits have also opened to represent various segments of the industry. The Mississippi Black Farmers Medical Marijuana Association started in February and lists an address in Okolona, while the Mississippi Delta Medical Marijuana Association started in December and is registered in Leland.

Emanuel Williams is executive director of the Delta association, and said he has around 10 members so far. He said his goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to enter the marijuana industry, adding the plant has the potential to provide an economic boost for struggling communities in the state.

“The more people know, the more they are educated about it, the more people you’re going to see give it a shot,” Williams said of marijuana. “It’s a win-win situation.”

But much uncertainty about the industry’s future in Mississippi remains – largely due to a pending state Supreme Court case that could toss out Initiative 65. That case, brought by Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler and set for April oral arguments, argues the process for placing a constitutional amendment before voters is improper.

A bill pending in the Legislature could immediately offer a replacement pot program if Initiative 65 is invalidated by the court. But it remains unclear if that proposal can pass: House and Senate leaders appear to have differing views on whether a replacement program should exactly mirror Initiative 65 or not.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi State Department of Health and a medical marijuana advisory committee are in the early stages of setting up rules and regulations – which must be in place by this summer – for the state pot program. That means it’s still unclear how exactly pot will be grown and sold in the state, assuming Initiative 65 survives the court challenge.

“I’d like to be a part of the (marijuana) industry, but there’s no certainty of us having an industry at all,” said Humphrey, the Jackson farmer. “It’s all speculation at this point.”