America's Black colleges take measured approach in bid to weather Covid crisis

HBCUs have seen relatively smooth fall semesters, which school leaders say is testament to student cooperation and a strong sense of community

Despite optimism from college administrators and elected officials, the reopening of American campuses over the last few months has been rough as they seek to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic.

Multiple institutions that opened up for in-person classes had to abruptly shift to virtual learning after Covid-19 outbreaks popped up on campuses in August and September. Some schools reported well over 1,000 cases while administrators lambasted students who were caught breaking the rules by holding parties. Research has estimated that campuses reopening added an additional 3,200 cases a day to the national Covid-19 count.

But the news is not all bleak.

Stories of relative success do exist in schools that are no stranger to crises: America’s Black colleges.

As a group, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) – institutions built to serve an African American population which was historically barred from attending majority-white institutions in America – have seen relatively smooth fall semesters.

Covid-19 cases at most HBCUs have been relatively low. School administrators say that is a testament to student cooperation, and schools that were not well-equipped to return to campus made the call to stay online, circumventing the chaotic fall semester that others experienced when attempting to reopen their campuses.

“[HBCUs] enroll a population that has been ravaged disproportionately by Covid: an African American population that is predominantly low-income,” said Brian Bridges, vice-president of research and member engagement for the United Negro College Fund, which works with a network of over 30 HBCUs.

When considering whether to reopen, schools “were trying to be mindful of the needs of their students”, Bridges said, balancing what reopening would mean for the health of the campus community and the necessity of a college campus for students who do not have resources for online learning at home.

Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, seeing a death rate from Covid-19 that is two times higher and a hospitalization rate that is four times higher than that of white Americans. A myriad of health and economic disparities contribute to this inequity. For example, Black Americans are more likely to have underlying health conditions that exacerbate the effect of the virus and they are more likely to be essential workers, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

The pandemic has also had a noted economic impact on Black Americans, who have consistently seen an unemployment rate that is almost double that for white Americans throughout the course of the outbreak.

Leaders of HBCUs have been particularly well acquainted with the economic problems that aggravate the pandemic’s effect. For many schools, at least 70% of the student population are eligible for Pell grants, which are given by the federal government to college students with exceptional financial need – typically a family income of less than $20,000.

Serving large numbers of students from poor families meant the stakes of keeping HBCU campuses closed went beyond the potential financial lossesfor the colleges.

“Institutions have been trying to be mindful about reopening because their students need them,” Bridges said. “For many of the students on their campuses, they’re the safest, most stable, most secure place that those students can be. Where they have reliable access to wifi, where they have a regular and quiet place to study in their dorm room. Where they might have regular and consistent meals.”

The reality that leaders at Stillman College, a small private HBCU in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had to face is that many of their students come from the state’s Black Belt region, which includes many rural areas that do not have reliable internet access.

“There are technology deserts in the state of Alabama where students don’t have access to wifi,” said Derrick Gilmore, executive vice-president at Stillman. “Even if we did provide laptops and computers to those students, internet access in those communities is limited. That really drove part of our approach because we wanted to make sure our students progressed academically.”

Stillman’s leaders decided the best course of action would be to carefully open campus, giving students a stable space where they are closer to their professors and classmates and can better focus just on their studies. The school is currently offering a mix of in-person and online classes, and conducting randomized, mandatory testing to monitor the virus.

A recent data analysis by NPR and Davidson College showed that the vast majority of schools are not conducting such “surveillance” testing, which public health experts say is more effective at keeping track of the virus.

Though the school is across town from the University of Alabama, the state’s flagship public university that has seen over 2,500 Covid-19 cases this semester, Stillman has seen just a handful of isolated cases.

Gilmore attests the success of the semester so far to the close-knit nature of the community, where faculty members and administrators can check in on students and hold each other accountable when following the school’s Covid-19 guidelines, which require masks and social distancing on campus.

Samuel Mendenhall Jr, a senior marketing major at Stillman and president of the school’s Student Government Association, said that students are keenly aware of what being on campus means to them and have followed the school’s guidelines to ensure safety on campus.

“Stillman serves as home for a lot of people. It’s not only home, but a refuge for a lot of our students,” Mendenhall said. “It gives us a sense of security knowing that we’re on campus and we’re in a community.”

At North Carolina A&T State University, a public university in Greensboro, North Carolina and the largest HBCU, with a student population of about 12,000, administrators have noticed that students on campus have similarly been respectful of the guidelines they put in place to prevent the spread of the virus. Masks and social distancing can be seen all around campus, and the school has been able to keep the virus under control, seeing a total of 137 cases since July.

“More than two-thirds of our student body in any given year are first-generation in college. The opportunity to go to school may mean something different to them than it does for students at [primarily white institutions] who are perhaps of different means and who know in the back of their mind if they get sent home, they’ll have another opportunity,” said Todd Simmons, associate vice-chancellor of North Carolina A&T.

“I’m not sure if our students necessarily feel the same way. They may take the opportunity with a little more seriousness and understand that it’s a little more special.”

Like Stillman and North Carolina A&T, the most common form of opening plan for the fall among HBCUs was some type of hybrid model. But according to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the second most common plan is virtual-only for the semester. Twenty-three HBCUs are virtual for this semester, about 23% of all HBCUs. In comparison, 10% of all colleges in the country are virtual-only.

For leaders of Johnson C Smith University, a private HBCU in Charlotte, North Carolina, Covid-19 cases in the region were getting too high to comfortably reopen, especially given limited testing capacity and a lack of space to quarantine students the school had at the time.

Clarence Armbrister, the university’s president, said the decision to keep campus closed was hard.

But ultimately, leaders thought “it’s probably better that they be safe where they are, and we try to deliver [an education online] as opposed to bringing students here and running the risk of not keeping them here and sending them out, having to yo-yo,” she said.

For Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, the decision to go virtual for the semester was expensive – it typically receives $1.6m in revenue from on-campus elements like dorms – but going online made the most sense given the logistical challenges of reopening to accommodate the pandemic, said the university president, Colette Pierce Burnette.

Not having students on campus has not been the ideal situation, but Burnette said the school had been working to make sure students’ needs are met even if they are away from campus. For example, the school ran a fundraising campaign to ensure every student received a tablet for their virtual learning since many students do not have laptops at home.

“[College] is primarily about their instruction, but because we are their community, we’re working really, really hard to be able to meet their needs,” Burnette said, something that leaders of HBCUs are used to. “It takes resources to serve people who don’t have resources.”

But HBCU leaders said the pandemic had highlighted their students’ dedication to education and has made their missions of serving their students even more important.

Burnette said: “Meeting the mission just got harder as the result of serving during a global pandemic. However, we are 145 years old. We survived Jim Crow laws, all those things. The university is already a stronger institution because of this.”


Lauren Aratani in New York

The GuardianTramp

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