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Student walking across campus at Mississippi State University.

Employment currently remaining steady as universities prepare to open for fall semester

JAMIE RUTLEDGE

By BECKY GILLETTE

The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) have long been major economic engines for the state and the communities where they are located. In addition to bringing in large research grants, the IHL directly employs about 28,000, including the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic upended the academic year when colleges and universities were closed beginning in late April. Students were able to finish the semester primarily with a shift to online instruction. The coronavirus continues to spread rapidly in Mississippi with 1,111 deaths in early July. But colleges and universities are making plans to open safely in the fall, and thus far no layoffs have been announced, said Caron Blanton, spokesperson for IHL.

“The legislature just passed the appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2021, so the universities are working on their budgets now and identifying where adjustments can be made,” Blanton said.

The IHL Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning passed a resolution at its May meeting stating the Board’s intention that the campuses of all eight public universities make plans to resume traditional operations on their campuses in the fall of 2020.

“Providing a safe environment for all students and employees is paramount,” said Dr. Ford Dye, president of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning. “We urge the universities to take prudent precautions in planning for resuming traditional operations and make adjustments as needed, based on recommendations from health experts.”

The resolution guides universities to plan to offer as many in-person classes as possible, while taking into consideration guidance from the federal government and the Mississippi Department of Health and complying with any executive order from the governor then in effect.

Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Alfred Rankins Jr., said the universities are developing a system-level plan for starting and completing the fall 2020 semester in the safest and most effective way.

“While this is a fluid situation and there are many unknowns at this point, our goal is to provide the best academic experience in the safest manner possible,” Rankin said.

The reopening plans are vital considering the economic impact of the colleges and universities. A 2017 study conducted by the University Research Center found that, for every $1 the state invests in Mississippi’s public universities, there is a $3.21 return to Mississippi’s economy, and that expenditures of Mississippi public universities generate $2.46 billion in economic impacts around the state.

Blanton said they are concerned that the downturn in the economy may continue to impact state revenue, which will in turn impact state appropriations to the universities. 

“Losses in state revenue and state appropriations to our universities ultimately place more financial burden on parents and students to pay for college,” Blanton said. “Although tuition at our universities is lower than tuition in surrounding states, continued affordability is always a major concern for our system.”

Mississippi State University (MSU) Chief Communications Officer Sid Salter said the current pandemic interjects uncertainty into every facet of their core mission of learning, research, and service.

“Despite that uncertainty, MSU has continued delivering a quality education to our students, continued conducting vital research activities as the state’s largest research enterprise, and continued serving the people of Mississippi through our boots-on-the-ground support of the state’s most vital economic engines – agriculture and industry,” Salter said. “Without knowing the depth and duration of the pandemic, it is difficult to project employment impacts. We are committed to following the guidance of the State College Board, the Mississippi Legislature and federal and state public health officials in all matters related to our dedicated faculty and staff as they guide and educate tomorrow’s leaders.”

In the Fiscal Year ended June 30, 2020, MSU had 4,915 employees earning a payroll totaling $339,234,767.

  Jamie Rutledge, vice president for finance and administration, Delta State University, said while they have not yet decreased their number of employees because of COVID-19, because of budget restraints anticipated for the 2020-21 fiscal year, they have deleted approximately 12 vacant positions.

DSU has approximately 424 employees with estimated salaries totaling about $26 million.

Rutledge said the biggest concern for DSU is the loss of revenue that the pandemic has caused and could cause over the next fiscal year. He said tuition, student housing, Bologna Performing Arts Center, and athletics revenues could all be reduced.

The University of Mississippi recently put out a Return to Campus plan for the fall 2020 semester. Ole Miss is the state’s Flagship University with the largest student enrollment. There are about 23,000 students and 4,594 full-time and part-time staff (not including research and about 10,477 employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center).

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 while returning to in-person operations, the university is implementing new protocols and expectations for everyone on campus, a modified academic calendar, forms of in-person and remote course delivery, mandatory training for employees and students, daily symptom checks and COVID-19 testing and tracing.

“The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus,” Chancellor Glenn F. Boyce said in a letter to the Ole Miss campus community. “To that end, we have redesigned fundamental aspects of campus life in an effort to mitigate the risk of virus spread and help us all keep each other healthy.”

Boyce said everyone is eager to return and regain their sense of community and connections to one another. He said fall will be here before we know it, and it will require everyone working collectively and in alignment to limit the spread of the virus and bring people back to campus.

Another area outlined in the plan is testing and tracing. Any student, faculty or staff member who develops symptoms of COVID-19 or has been exposed to someone suspected of or confirmed to have COVID-19 is expected to notify University Health Services or their medical provider immediately.

University Health Services will provide testing and ask anyone who has been tested to quarantine until they receive their results. All positive tests must be reported to UHS, which will communicate with the Mississippi State Department of Health and the appropriate campus departments to conduct contact tracing.

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About Becky Gillette