Delta State professors express concerns about returning to university, request change to online only

In an open letter to Delta State administration, 24 professors at Delta State have expressed concerns about returning to classes this fall and have requested that all but essential classes be changed from face-to-face to online for the fall semester.

See the open letter below:

An Open Letter to Delta State University Administration

August 12, 2020

Dear President LaForge and Provost McAdams, Members of Cabinet and Executive Council:

We implore you to reconsider the decision to proceed with Delta State University’s reopening plan, which was conceived in good faith, but fails to recognize the ongoing uncontrolled spread of COVID-19, nationally, and in Mississippi, specifically. Your faculty and staff wanted nothing more than the opportunity to return to a sense of normalcy this fall and worked tirelessly to prepare hybrid courses in the hopes of reengaging with our students in familiar ways. But we cannot in good conscience continue to pretend that circumstances in our community have not changed. The situation worsens by the day and to ignore the likelihood of a coming health catastrophe on our campus is a position morally untenable to us. We’ve waited as long as we could, recognizing the monumental and agonizing choice facing you, but we can no longer remain silent hoping for a change in the current plan, a plan that puts our community at risk of preventable illness and death.

This morning, an article in Mississippi Today noted that the Bolivar County coroner has requested more storage space for bodies and that one more unexpected and suspicious death would exhaust present capacities. Every day more evidence mounts of the long-term damage from this insidious disease, even in asymptomatic people, and the rates of transmission among teenagers and young adults, once thought to be reduced, now appear to be similar to older adults. Moreover, recent studies have shown significant community spread through aerosol transmission. These gains in knowledge of how the disease transmits and who is affected demand a re-envisioning of reopening plans based on old data.

Some of our knowledge about who is affected, though, we’ve known from the beginning. Because of systemic racism within our healthcare system, Black Mississippians have suffered disproportionately from this virus, accounting for half of all deaths in the state. One of Delta State University’s points of pride is its enduring commitment to racial justice and the diversity of its student body. Given that 40% of DSU students identify as Black, we fear that opening as planned will only add to the disproportionate suffering.

The current plan for reopening depends upon sober and sincere compliance with safety measures, including the wearing of masks, but the current rhetoric around welcoming students back to campus threatens to undercut any serious messaging. Given the devastating toll the pandemic has already taken on our fellow citizens, as well as the legitimate fears of Delta State students, staff, and faculty, we need to encourage our students to take this disease and the efforts to mitigate its spread and impact as thoughtfully as possible.

It is also clear that the attitudes of many students and faculty have changed about the virus and a return to campus. A day hasn’t passed this summer when we haven’t received a phone call or message from a student or faculty member concerned about the risks being imposed on them by an action plan conceived based on a spring survey of students and early science that suggested large droplet spread was responsible for transmission.

Considering all of this, and keeping in mind that the health of the Delta State community remains the highest priority of this administration, we ask that you convert, immediately, all but essential classes from face-to-face to online for the fall semester. For those classes for which it has been deemed essential to meet face-to-face, we ask that you demand strict adherence to safety measures with enforceable penalties for non-compliance. Additionally, we ask that you restrict the students moving onto campus to those enrolled in essential face-to-face classes, and those needing accommodation for their safety and well-being. As colleagues expressed in a similar letter to the leadership at Mississippi State, a “return of all students jeopardizes the feasibility of a safe return to campus for any students who need campus resources and housing.” And, of course, should Delta State be forced to shut down its campus facilities because of disease spread, we risk not being able to serve these students anyway.

We sympathize with the administration and the members of the task force. The assignment to design a university-wide plan was a difficult one, fraught with competing concerns. We accept that they have acted in good faith in crafting a plan for reopening. But this plan is based on old data and a less clear understanding of the disease and its impact on communities. Moreover, the financial benefits of attempting to offer an on-campus experience to students cannot outweigh the grave risk to the health and wellbeing of those students and the Delta State staff and faculty who will be forced to interact with multiple people several times a day in closed spaces.

This unprecedented pandemic presents many challenges almost unimaginable one year ago, but it also gives us an opportunity to live up to our role as a leader in the region by doing our part to mitigate the spread of the virus. Delta State’s 10th visioning principle commits the university to community engagement and leadership, as well as racial justice. Many of our students take care of young family members and elders. By being responsible to our students, faculty, and staff, we’re being good stewards to our wider community.

In solidarity,

 Mike Smith, Interim Chair, Division of Languages and Literature

Shalando R. Jones, Instructor in Communication Studies, Division of Languages and Literature

Chuck Westmoreland, Associate Professor of History and Chair, Division of Social Sciences and History

Jacqueline Goldman, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Division of Counselor Education and Psychology

Damian Obiyo Odunze, Assistant Professor of Social Justice and Criminology, Division of Social Sciences and History

Melanie Anderson, Assistant Professor of English, Division of Languages and Literature

Lauren Coker-Durso, Assistant Professor of English, Division of Languages and Literature

Stephanie Bell, Assistant Professor of Counselor Education, Division of Counselor Education & Psychology

Jamie Dahman, Assistant Professor of Music, Department of Music

Andres Garcia-Penagos, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Division of Counselor Education and Psychology

Sylma Samuel Ferreira, Instructor of Spanish, Division of Languages and Literature

Douglas Mark, Associate Professor of Music, Department of Music

Leslie Stewart, Associate Professor of Political Science, Division of Social Sciences and History

Don Allan Mitchell, Associate Professor of English, Division of Languages & Literature

Michaela Merryday, Associate Professor of Art History, Art Department

Karen Fosheim, Professor of Music, Chair, Department of Music

Natasha Barnes, Assistant Professor of Counselor Education, Division of Counselor Education & Psychology

Bret Pimentel, Associate Professor of Music, Department of Music

Shelley Collins, Professor of Music, Department of Music

Kayla Selby, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, Department of Art

Ted Fisher, Assistant Professor of Digital Media, Department of Art

Levi Pressnell, Instructor, Division of Languages and Literature

Maria Weber, Assistant Professor of Physics, Division of Mathematics and Sciences

Cetin Oguz, Professor of Art, Department of Art, Chair

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