After a full year of online, Zoom and hybrid classes, the campus of the University of Mississippi is coming back to life. The overall feeling surrounding the return to full in-person operations is shared by students and faculty alike: thankful.
In March 2020, the university campus was suddenly abandoned. Students were encouraged to return to their hometowns in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. The campus would not be the same for over a year. For the 2020-2021 school year, classes would be held online, over Zoom or occasionally in person.
The pandemic halted nearly every aspect of Ole Miss, leaving students and faculty to adjust their daily lives.
Professors were among the first forced to step back and reevaluate their typical operations. Many had never taught online before and had to quickly figure out how to deliver lessons over the internet.
Kristen Walker, instructor of French, reflected on the difficulties she faced while switching to Zoom.
“For me, one of the most challenging things was because everyone had to be muted, it was hard to know if things were being understood,” Walker said.
Walker also acknowledged the loss of basic human connection that accompanies the muted screens of Zoom.
“I would say something funny and although I could see people laughing, it was not the same as hearing their laughter,” Walker said.
Tiffany Benson, a biology professor, faced similar setbacks during the pandemic. She said overall, she did not mind teaching through Zoom. However, she found it difficult to find ways to engage both students present in the classroom and those attending by Zoom in hybrid classes.
“I had to completely think through active learning exercises so that students not in the room could be involved to the extent students in the room were,” Benson said.
Both Walker and Benson said they’re glad to have last year behind them and to interact with students face to face again.
“Oh, without question, I prefer teaching in person and will be glad when the pandemic is behind us so we can go back to seeing each other’s full faces,” Benson said.
Unlike Benson, Walker is partial to teaching in the classroom, and is happy to have that privilege restored.
“I 100% prefer teaching in the classroom. I am thankful that we did not lose over a year of learning because of Covid, but I am much happier being in person with my students,” Walker said.
Students have said they are equally grateful to be back on campus.
Barri Margaret Teeter, a junior secondary English education major, said that after a semester consisting of 18 hours and only one in-person class, she is happy to be back in the same room as her professors.
“It’s a lot better than online because I can see my professor,” Teeter said.
Ryan Phillips, a junior biology major, is also grateful to be interacting with his professors and classmates beyond a computer screen.
“It’s so important to get to know your professors and classmates, and I wasn’t able to do that last year,” Phillips said.
Phillips also acknowledged one key benefit of in-person classes: better focus.
“It’s way easier to stay engaged when I’m physically present and invested in the people around me, and I’m super thankful to have that,” he said.
Bethany Martin, a junior history major, said she is also finding it easier to stay focused this semester. She believes that being in the classroom is essential.
“Personally, I prefer in-person, mostly because I feel it’s much healthier to be able to get out and physically go to class, not to mention that I know I am able to focus much more when I am physically in class,” Martin said.
Freshman are having a particularly notable transition, having just completed their last two years of high school either partially or fully virtual.
Anna Hutchinson, a freshman nursing major, noted that her unusual junior and senior years of high school left her feeling behind when transitioning to Ole Miss.
“Teacher expectations are considerably different in-person vs. online, and it is an adjustment,” she said, “I think my last two years of high school did not prepare me at all for college.”
Beyond students and professors, those that help keep the university running smoothly had to shift during the pandemic.
One of the most important elements of this campus is the landscaping. Ranked as one of the nation’s 50 most beautiful campuses, the foliage at Ole Miss is one of the reasons prospective students choose to apply.
Jeff McManus, director of landscaping on campus, said that the lockdowns starting in March 2020 actually offered him and his team an opportunity to move more freely on campus and work harder.
“The great part was when everyone left campus at spring break, we had the campus to ourselves to make Ole Miss beautiful for when everyone came back,” McManus said.
Still, McManus said he is glad to finally have the full number of students walking around campus again.
“We sure missed having students on campus last year and I am very glad they are back this year. It’s nice having students enjoy the Grove, going to sporting events and experiencing the in-person college life,” he said.
Another part of campus life affected by the pandemic was the Office of Sustainability. Kendall McDonald-Robinson said that the Office of Sustainability relies on events held in person. When everyone went home, she and her co-workers had to find new ways to engage with students.
“So much of environmental and sustainability work depends on building relationships and partnerships. This was especially difficult to do remotely,” McDonald-Robinson said.
McDonald-Robinson, like McManus, chose to use the last year as a much-needed respite in order to reevaluate and reorganize the Office of Sustainability.
“While this was difficult, reducing our operational responsibilities during this time did give our office a rare window to reevaluate much of our programming and priorities,” she said. “With the hustle and bustle of typical semesters, we rarely have the opportunity to do so.”
Despite the overall feeling of relief surrounding returning to campus, there are some creeping feelings of apprehension. Many can’t help but worry about the virus.
“I have concerns about public safety, especially when seeing non-observance of basic mask protocol in public spaces,” Phillips said.
Benson shared similar concerns.
“I am glad to be back in person, but bringing large numbers of students into a classroom given the late summer COVID-19 surge was pretty concerning,” she said.
As a biologist, Benson said she would have preferred that the school implement a vaccine mandate rather than just a mask mandate. The Institutes of Higher Learning voted on Sept. 17 to ban all public colleges and universities in Mississippi from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine.
Despite a lingering feeling of apprehension, it’s safe to say that university students and faculty are grateful to reunite with their beloved campus.