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.
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 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.”
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.