USM president: Plans call for fall reopening of campus

(The following is a message from Southern Miss' president -- submitted to FOX23.)

Dear Southern Miss Community:

As we continue to navigate the ever-evolving COVID-19 pandemic, I am pleased to share that we are planning to resume on-campus operations this fall. These plans could change, as guidance from public health officials monitoring COVID-19 continues to evolve. In preparation for this transition, modified policies and procedures are being developed for implementation across the institution, including expanded health and safety protocols and flexible course formats, which will allow us to adapt more easily to changes in the environment.

The Southern Miss on-campus experience has proven to be a strong indicator of student success. The safety and well-being of our students and our entire University community are our top priority, and although our fall semester will look different, our commitment to preparing our students for the world that awaits them has not wavered.

Specific details will be developed in the coming weeks as USM completes a thorough review of current public health guidelines, with a strategic, measured approach to implementing requirements for protective face coverings, strict social distancing, and increased sanitation of high-traffic areas, along with course modifications.

I am deeply grateful to:

• Our faculty and staff for their extraordinary work to educate and support our students remotely, and for the work yet to come to prepare for a safe return to campuses over the coming months.

• Our students for their flexibility and determination to finish their academic course work this spring, despite the unprecedented challenges we all now face.

• Our researchers for their innovative support of critical community needs through COVID-19 testing and the fabrication of healthcare supplies.

• Our alumni for their ongoing engagement in our student recruitment efforts, and for their contributions to emergency funds supporting our students, faculty, and staff.

In the coming weeks, we will finalize plans for faculty and staff to return to our campuses in a phased approach, beginning in late May and continuing throughout June. We know this transition will require the strategic positioning of resources to support faculty and staff, as well as students. Supervisors will notify individual employees of specific changes to their work assignments at the appropriate time.

Additional health protocols and procedures will be implemented throughout the summer in preparation for fall, following forthcoming guidance from the IHL Safe Start Task Force and ongoing consultation with health officials. Public health guidelines will also determine future plans for large gatherings, including athletic events. Institutional guidelines will be posted at usm.edu/covid-19 as they are finalized over the course of the summer, and individual units will post additional details on their websites as applicable.

Just a few short months ago, no one could have predicted where we would be today related to this international pandemic. Each of us has been inconvenienced in numerous ways and forced to adapt to a new way of living. And each of us wants to return to our definition of “normalcy” as soon as possible. Our ability to comply fully with all new health and safety protocols – both in letter and in spirit – will determine how quickly we are able to achieve that goal. I have full confidence that our University community and stakeholders will rise to and exceed this expectation.

While many factors are still unknown, the fall semester will undoubtedly be another test of our demonstrated ability to meet any challenge with innovation and determination. I am proud of the way we have responded to this crisis, and I have no doubt these efforts will only be further enhanced when our full faculty, staff, and student body return to our campuses this fall.

Sincerely, Rodney D. Bennett President

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