With signs suggesting the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be over, Missouri State President Clif Smart recently posed the question: “What will the Fall 2021 semester look like?”
Smart, addressing the MSU Board of Governors during a recent meeting, was seeking feedback on how to proceed. He said higher education officials nationally fall into two “camps” or general approaches.
“Some institutions intend to have a fall semester that looks similar to this semester or last semester — in other words, sort of a transition or hybrid approach, still assuming we are going to be in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
“Other institutions indicate they plan to approach the Fall 2021 semester differently, assuming that we will be mostly through the pandemic and be able to manage the pandemic in such a way that we will go back to more of a normal distribution of classes, less capacity restrictions … more events being held as they have traditionally been.”
Smart said he’s squarely in the second camp, interested in creating an August opening to the 2021-22 year that will be “close to normal.” However, he said MSU has learned a lot of lessons from the pandemic and created changes that will remain.
“We are not going to abandon or discard what we have learned,” he said.
The university aggressively tested all students who planned to live on campus prior to the start of the spring semester, identifying 41 students who were positive for COVID-19 but not showing any symptoms.
Smart said that proactive approach, and the hundreds of tests given weekly, helped the campus avoid repeating a major spike from the start of the fall semester.
“We are in a substantially better place this semester than we were six weeks into last semester,” he told the board.
MSU still provides housing for students who must isolate or quarantine but it dwindled to just a handful recently. The high point this semester was 22 compared to 122 during the fall semester.
Smart said higher education employees, as a whole, are not yet eligible for the vaccine but roughly one-third of the university’s workforce are eligible because of age or health condition in the high-risk category.
For that reason, MSU volunteered to help with distribution and has administered the vaccine to more than 1,294 members of the campus.
“We are pleased with where we are on that, but we know there are more members of our campus community who need or want to be vaccinated,” he said. “We will continue to work with our state and local partners to get more vaccine.”
MSU board members applauded efforts to return to more normal operations for the Fall 2021 semester.
Board Chair Amy Counts encouraged Smart to “open it up to a more regular semester in the fall with, obviously, a back-up plan.”
Craig Frazier, a board member, said he supports “less restriction” as long as MSU works closely with the Springfield-Greene County Health Department. He noted the university, and others, must continue to watch out for those at greatest risk.
“Everybody is getting better and better at identifying who is actually at risk and if we can continue to make sure those at risk are helped with vaccine or treatment or masks, or isolation, I think it gets easier,” he said.
Lynn Parman, a board member, encouraged the university to continue to follow many of the safety precautions put in place during the pandemic.
“I do believe there is a cause for optimism about the days ahead so I would support us moving in that direction,” she said. “I do think we’ve learned a lot in the past 11 months about the safety and well-being of our students and so whatever we can continue in the future will position us to be as resilient as possible.”
Parman added: “I don’t see it as returning back. I see it as adjusting and adapting into the future.”
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to [email protected].