For the Fall 2020 semester, MSU introduced a number of different protocols in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Among these protocols were increased frequency in cleaning, maximum capacity designations for classrooms, social distancing markers and a campus-wide mask mandate.
“I think [the protocols were followed] really well overall. I mean certainly, [participation was] not 100%, and we knew going into it, it wouldn’t be 100%. Personally, I was very pleased with the level of adherence to [the protocols]. Most everyone took it very seriously,” Keith Lamb, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, said.
One of the ways the administration at MSU has been able to gauge students’ opinions of the university’s handling of the pandemic is a recently-closed student survey. Among the results of the survey so far has been a clear desire for face-to-face schooling.
“We haven’t analyzed it yet, but we actually just closed the student survey on the COVID-19 experience. We have to analyze that. I’ve peeked at it some, and I think, again you hear a lot of different things, but some of the themes that start to emerge is that student’s prefer face to face classes…. They struggled some with remote or online [learning], whether that be they struggled with the material or the technology, or if they struggled with finding a quiet place to do the class. Students seemed to miss the social aspect is what we’re seeing,” Lamb said.
Active cases overview
As of Dec. 18, there have been a total of 268 cases of COVID-19 reported on campus. Students have made up 216 of the reported cases, while employees have made up the other 52. Despite the high number of students on campus, currently there are no active cases reported among students and 10 active cases among employees. These numbers are a far cry from earlier in the semester, when reported active cases reached the 60’s.
“I think [our active cases] were probably in the 60’s. If you would’ve told me in August that would’ve been our high, I would’ve taken it. With that said, what we saw was a very low number through early October, and then we saw an increase that became a new equilibrium… and we were running 30’s everyday for active cases, then right before Thanksgiving in November it started to grow quite a it. It started to escalate, and I believe we were in the low 60’s for active cases. It was a far departure from running 10-15 cases, but when you take a step back, and think about the planning that we did and what I thought we could see on campus, I was really pleased with that low of a number,” Lamb said.
Throughout 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened anxiety caused by a variety of factors have led to worsening mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between June 24 and June 30, 40% of adults in the US reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. The CDC report also said that younger adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid caregivers were particularly at risk. MSU students also reported worries about their mental health.
“[We’ve seen] mental health concerns certainly during this time of heightened anxiety, and it’s not just the pandemic.- though to say that’s a significant amount of anxiety is an understatement- but it’s not just the pandemic, it’s the election, it’s the social justice concerns, it’s so many things weighing on them that there were some concerns that we saw on the survey around mental health. A number of students lost jobs during COVID, certainly a number of students, and I was the same way as a student, worked in the service industry, and they were hit particularly hard with the shutdowns, so we saw a number of students lost jobs,” Lamb said.
Event changes coming in 2021
Despite remaining in phase three of COVID-19 protocol and their feeling that the pandemic was handled well in the fall semester, administration is introducing several adjustments and safety promotions for the spring semester, while relaxing their stance on others. Some of the new guidelines are being created to adjust to the high number of sports competing in Spring 2020. Fans will be allowed at these events, and outside events as a whole are having their maximum capacities raised.
“We are creating guidelines for student spectators at sporting events. In the spring, we will have a number of athletic events. Almost all of our athletic programs will be participating this spring, so it will be a very busy spring, so we’re creating guidelines for social distancing, contactless processes, attendance tracking, face coverings [and] all that for the athletics events. For our outdoor programming, we’re actually raising our capacity from 100 to 150 participants. What we found in the fall is that we could safely offer outdoor programming with 100 participants, and we thought we could have even accommodated more,” Lamb said.
Lamb announced that MSU would provide even more on campus events for students for the Spring 2020 semester. MSU plans to have five or six weekend stampede events in the upcoming semester, compared to the three it hosted in the fall.
“Part of our theory in the fall was we knew that individuals are 18 to 23, 24, 25 years old. If we don’t provide them something to do on campus, they’re going to find something to do. We all know that, because we were all that way at the same age, so we felt it was important to provide activities on campus where we could monitor compliance with mask wearing,” Lamb said.
While MSU had announced in the fall semester that Homecoming would be postponed until the spring, Lamb has now said that there will be no traditional Homecoming at all this academic year.
“We had announced in the fall that we would postpone Homecoming [and] family weekend until the spring. We’re going to do something a little different now. We are concerned with a traditional Homecoming or family weekend where we bring a lot of external individuals to campus. So we are looking at doing… some sort of spirit week, Homecoming week less the Homecoming part, for the spring, ” Lamb said.
One of the shocks of the fall semester was the announcement on Oct. 21 that spring break in 2021 would be cancelled. As a result the semester is scheduled to end a week earlier than normal.
“We were absolutely concerned with disruption to the spring semester if we sent everybody off and then brought then back and the virus started circulating. Spring break is a little too early to go solely remote for the rest of the semester…. We felt it was in the best interest given the situation for this one year to cancel spring break and just move up the end of the semester by one week,” Lamb said.
The reason students didn’t find out about the cancellation of spring break until late in the Fall 2020 semester is because the university was focusing on each predicament as it came. The administration didn’t begin to take a hard look at spring break until cases began to spike in October.
“When we first began the fall [semester] we just didn’t know. Really, the analogy we kind of use during this – and every school is the same way – the whole country is the same way, is we’re all paving the runway as the jet is landing,” Lamb said.
MSU is also changing a housing procedure for international students returning from abroad.
“We are no longer requiring international students to physically quarantine upon arrival. The main reason for that is it seems counter intuitive, when we have more virus circulated here than where most of our international students come from,” Lamb said.
Stricter screening processes and a revamp of the campus’s free voluntary testing program are expected to make the MSU campus safer next semester.
“[We are going to] basically screen every student as they come back into housing. We’re also taking a hardook at our surveillance testing program…. We did not think the program was particularly effective, because we would draw 100 names and maybe 15 would go get tested. We’re rethinking that, because we think that’s very important,” Lamb said.
As vaccines begin their circulation around the United States, Lamb announced that MSU had applied and been approved for vaccines. Lamb referred to whether MSU would receive the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines as a “guessing game,” but said that MSU has the capabilities to store either type of vaccine.
“We’ve applied to be a vaccine site. We’ve been told that we’ve been approved to be a vaccine site. Obviously hospitals [and] things like that are the first to receive a vaccine, so I think we’re probably looking at early to mid spring [for] when we’ll receive our doses here,” Lamb said.
On Dec. 14, Lamb sent out a postmaster saying that it was a possibility that MSU may be able to return to a mask-free “normal” Fall 2020 semester. Lamb said whether or not that happens is ultimately up to whatever the state of Texas decides. While Lamb offered a message of hope, he was equally adamant that students cannot let up in their vigilance.
“Things are going to get better, we are going to get out of this, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but part of [the postmaster’s purpose] was also making sure people know we’re not out of it, and even though we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we have to still do the right thing [and] adhere to the safety procedures. We have to finish strong until we’re out of it,” Lamb said.
Additional changes for 2021
Other changes include a new rule that requires a faculty advisor to be present at all student organization events to monitor how well students keep to their COVID-19 mitigation plans. Lamb was adamant that student organizations as a whole did well in submitting their COVID-19 mitigation plans and sticking to them and these new precautions are simply to keep everyone involved safe. Another change is an update to the MSU safety app, including a timestamp and scannable QR code to display their screenings. Overall, MSU hopes to increase education on the virus and how to stay safe.