HBCUs deal with COVID-19

Cyril Josh Barker | 10/8/2020, midnight | Updated on 10/22/2020, midnight
COVID-19 is having a profound impact on America’s historically Black colleges and universities.
Alabama State University

The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting college campuses around the nation and administrators are trying their best to keep students safe. However, COVID-19 is having a profound impact on America’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Infection rates among college students are becoming a growing problem. A recent study by the Center for Disease Control reports that between Aug. 2 and Sept. 5, cases among people between the ages of 18-22 increased by 55%.

Students living on and off campus have been blamed for gathering in groups at parties and other activities. While most predominantly white institutions have made headlines about COVID-19 spreading among students and even having to shut down, little is reported about the efforts HBCUs are making to keep their students safe.

Over the summer, the United Negro College Fund sent a survey to more than 5,000 HBCU students about their plans for enrolling in school for the fall. The survey found that over 80% of students wanted to return to campus for some level of in-person instruction for the fall semester. However, 54% said they are experiencing financial challenges as a result of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has had a negative impact on my family. My mother is no longer working and my father is disabled. It has been a strain to pay all of the bills on time,” one student said in the survey. “I even started selling food plates just to have money in my pocket.”

“My father is unemployed, my grandmother whom I live with struggles to make ends meet, so I have to step up and become an adult even more than before,” another student said. “I’m currently alone paying for school.”

The AmNews spoke with officials at three HBCUs to find out how they’re handling COVID-19. While the schools are dealing with keeping students, faculty and staff safe, they’re also trying to get the funding they need and making sure students are being educated.

Alabama State University (ASU), located in Montgomery, Ala., closed its campus in March during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The school sent students home just days before the first reported case in Alabama.

“Sending students home was not something we were prepared for or wanted to do but we had to do it,” said ASU President Quinton Ross. “Even with all of the uncertainty, we have to look at the good and the bad of the situation and we can either sink or swim, and we chose to swim.”

The school began planning and went to remote learning for the summer. Ross said prior to the pandemic, ASU had few online learning options but was able to offer it a few weeks after students were sent home.

But to open in the fall, Ross said testing was key. ASU partnered with the Alabama Department of Public Health and began testing students, faculty and staff. Testing was also made available for residents who lived in public housing, which is near the school.

“The testing was the anchor,” Ross said. “If we could do the testing then it could give us a baseline of where we would be. We began to build our protocol on people being tested when they come.”

ASU has a mandatory mask mandate for everyone on campus. Masks are readily available and the school has six COVID-19 rapid testing machines that give results in 15 minutes.

Ross said that COVID-19 cases have been minimal on campus and that there are isolation dorms for students who may have come in contact with the virus.

Like many other HBCUs, ASU has a robust sports program that includes football that brings in money to the school. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, which ASU is part of, decided to postpone the football season for its 10-member schools. Events like homecoming and the highly-attended Magic City Classic will happen in the spring.

However, ASU has lost money from games it would have played against non-conference schools. This fall ASU was scheduled to play Big 12 Conference school Texas Tech. Ross said ASU lost a couple million dollars by having to cancel the games.

Alabama State University (ASU) currently has 1,737 students on campus and a total of 4,048 students enrolled. The school is operating on a hybrid model with a mixture of in-person and online learning with 38% of students learning completely online.

“Some of the adjustments that we made during this time are things that we should keep and accept for the future,” Ross said. “We used this as an opportunity for invention and innovation. Every day we look to try to make sure we can do things to keep us going.”

The situation is different at Morris College in Sumter, S.C. The small private HBCU, which currently has an enrollment of about 500 students, has gone completely online with no students on campus.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact in general on all colleges and in particular HBCUs,” said the Rev. Reginald S. Floyd, Esq., director of institutional advancement at Morris College. “Students who attend HBCUs historically have faced economic challenges and are often first generation students. When you face a pandemic such as COVID-19, there are challenges that we face that most predominantly-white schools may not face.”

Floyd added that bringing students on campus and then sending them home if an outbreak occurred would come at a cost to its students. Morris worked to get laptops and mobile hotspots to those who did not have access to the internet. Floyd said some Morris College students live in rural areas where broadband is not always available.

The college was recently awarded $850,000 from BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and about $300,000 of that was given to students for scholarships and hardships. Much of the money will also go toward strengthening capabilities to educate students through e-learning platforms.

“We are fighting the good fight to make sure that in this space, our students are not losing out,” Floyd said. “As an HBCU, we’ve always had to fight and we’re not stopping the fight now.”

The UNCF survey pointed out that 37% of students reported a decline in their mental well-being due to COVID-19. Morris College is religiously affiliated with the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina. The college provides a weekly livestream of its “Morris College Preaching Moment,” which are sermons by pastors, preachers and professors aimed at keeping up morale.

Morris College also streamed its fall convocation and its freshman virtual orientation via Zoom.

As far as sports are concerned, most of the school’s athletic activity, including basketball, baseball, track and field and golf, happen in the spring. While students are off campus, athletes are still receiving their scholarships.

Floyd said there is a plan for Morris College students to return in the spring semester but there’s also a contingency plan.

“Right now, our plans are that they will return but we are watching all of the data and all of the trends and if we decided to open up, we’re going to make sure that our students, faculty, staff and the students’ families are going to be well protected,” he said.

At Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, La., student enrollment is at 7,091. The school offers three modes of instruction, which includes online only, hybrid or in-class only. In-class only is limited to 50% capacity with only 15 students permitted in a classroom. Breaking it down, 26% of students are learning completely online while 47% are doing hybrid and 27% of students are attending class in-person.

“We polled our students on the different modes of instruction and while a lot of students were interested in taking classes remotely, we had a significant number of students who said they wanted to take classes in person,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs Executive Assistant Sharon Saunders. “That’s why we offered the three different modes of instruction.”

Southern has reported 91 COVID-19 cases in total on campus. There is a mandatory mask mandate for inside and outside of buildings and there are also mandatory temperature checks at several checkpoints to enter campus. No organizations can meet in person and large gatherings are not permitted. Several events have been held virtually including orientation and a recent fall career fair.

Testing is offered daily to students in the Student Health Center, in addition to surge testing days for students. Testing is also available to the general public.

Like ASU, Southern is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference with fall sports entirely canceled and postponed until the fall.

“Students are still excited about the educational experience and opportunities that exist at Southern University,” said Student Affairs Vice Chancellor Dr. Frederick Walton. “They want to be here and they want to continue to be part of this community.”

Walton added that Southern, like other colleges, has to remain vigilant about COVID-19 and is reminding students to adhere to protocols.

“We can’t lose the momentum that we have here,” Walton said. “We don’t know when this is going to end. We know there are other challenges that come about as the weather changes to winter. We have to continue to be vigilant in some cases to assure that we continue to maintain the same kinds of rules of engagement that we’ve exercised during the fall.”