Mississippi’s two largest universities announced modified mask mandates late Friday afternoon.

Masks are now optional at University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University except in health care and instructional settings, such as classrooms, labs and studios. UM cited updated guidance from the Mississippi Department of Health, as well as declining metrics such as case numbers and positivity rates, as factors in the adjusted protocol.

Public relations officers for the state’s six other universities told Mississippi Today that their schools are continuing to require masks indoors.

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UM and MSU announced the modified requirements about a week after MSDH updated its guidance for colleges and universities on Feb. 7 to new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s updated guidance “recommends indoor masking in public for everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission” for colleges and universities.

Though cases are declining, Lafayette and Oktibbeha counties — where UM and MSU are located — continue to see a high level of community transmission, as does the entire state of Mississippi, according to the CDC.

Previously, MSDH required the universities to mandate that masks in indoor campus settings when community transmission in a county is substantial or high. That guidance was adopted during the delta wave, said Liz Sharlot, MSDH’s communications director.

MSDH briefed the Institutions of Higher Learning on the new guidance last week, Sharlot said. So far, UM and MSU are the only public universities to loosen their mask mandates. Delta State University’s administration is meeting this week to review its COVID protocol, said Brittany Davis-Green, the university’s communications director.

At UM, faculty and staff can “require face coverings for visits to their private offices,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce wrote in an email to students, faculty and staff. Boyce wrote that masks will not be required in the following on-campus spaces: residence halls, libraries, dining facilities, the student union, recreation facilities, retail spaces, offices, or conference rooms.

In its press release, MSU said its COVID-19 task force will re-evaluate those metrics on a weekly basis.

“The university’s goal is to return to normal campus operations as soon as possible,” wrote Sid Salter, MSU’s director of public affairs.

By Mississippi Today’s Molly Minta