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Historically Black Colleges and Universities have shown overwhelming success in slowing the spread of COVID-19 on their campuses.
Reporting on transmission rates at higher learning institutions has centered on the inability of predominantly white institutions (PWIs) to reopen without abruptly shutting down again as cases rise. However, in looking at what HBCUs are doing to slow the spread and by promoting resources available to Black communities, media attention can fill racialized gaps in the dissemination of life-saving information.
PWIs continue to make headlines as media attention either turns only to HBCUs' crime rates and athletic achievements or ignores these campuses altogether.
WUNC reported in October that a UNC System student who attends a non-HBCU is more than twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than a student who attends an in-state HBCU. North Carolina A&T State University, the country's largest public HBCU, successfully maintained one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 for a public university in the state during the Fall 2020 semester.
Although N.C. A&T has recently experienced significant clusters toward the end of the Spring 2021 semester, it is notable that the school maintained some of the lowest COVID-19 numbers in the UNC system in the Fall 2020 term.
Todd Simmions, Associate Vice Chancellor for NC A&T University Relations, sees how students are policing themselves about COVID-19. He thinks this could be an essential reason why the university hadn't experienced significant clusters or outbreaks at the time of our interview.
"Our students are doing all of the things you have to do to remain healthy. We require them to mask up, social distance, and wash their hands," said Simmions.
During the beginning of the spring semester, students across North Carolina's universities were still gathering in large numbers to attend fraternity and sorority rush events, causing high spikes of COVID-19 cases across campuses. At Duke University, more than 100 new COVID-19 cases were reported last semester among students who were of "Greek affiliation" or first-year male students.
In another incident, Chapel Hill's basketball victory over Duke on February 6 led to a gathering of more than 1,000 Tar Heel fans in celebration, in open defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. This conduct resulted in more than 300 referrals to Chapel Hill police and a delayed in-person start of classes.
The majority of the students photographed from that night were white, and seen without masks. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC faculty, wrote a letter to other faculty and told the News & Observer, the students embodied the "definition of white privilege."
Although UNC has reportedly seen no clusters linked to that night's celebration, the question of how students with different gender and racial identities are responding to the pandemic remains pertinent—and, importantly, how they're portrayed as doing so in the media. The common refrain from HBCU students and faculty has been the importance of protecting communities of color that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Clear strategies for optimum safety
Many HBCUs continue to err on the side of caution and use strict strategies to keep students safe. Smaller campus sizes and stringent honor codes have affected how students make decisions regarding their safety and community safety.
Durham's North Carolina Central University has a student population of 8,011. They're offering three methods of academic course delivery: face-to-face, hybrid, and online instruction. Quiana Shepard, Director of Marketing and Communications at NCCU, said that approximately 63 percent of classes are entirely online.
While transition to predominantly online instruction may not be feasible for larger institutions with tens of thousands of students, this strategy is an asset to often-smaller HBCUs, showcasing that containing the spread is possible with institutional commitment to the safety of all students.
Morehouse College, a private all men's HBCU with around 2,238 students, reopened its doors to 400 students residing on-campus this spring semester—less than a fifth of its normal population. These students are expected to adhere to COVID-19 screening requirements of having a temperature less than 100.4 degrees daily, and they must take a rapid test weekly.
Along with screening requirements, Morehouse College students are required to complete a daily online questionnaire about their symptoms and possible exposure to COVID-19. Without the completed digital survey, students aren't allowed to enter campus buildings.
Students across the HBCU spectrum are actively taking steps to reduce the spread by recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic, as well.
"I have some hybrid classes but I chose to take them remotely because I don't want to risk exposure—what if one person in the class gets it (COVID-19) then we all have to quarantine for two weeks," said Manai Kerr, a freshman Biology student at N.C. A&T.
While eliminating risk and cutting back on in-person classes are straightforward strategies to avoid spikes in the transmission of the virus, HBCUs have also organized quarantine facilities for potential exposure and students who live on-campus and test positive COVID-19.
"N.C. A&T has an on-campus residence hall that was set aside to accommodate quarantine and isolation for COVID-19 purposes. The capacity of the hall is usually 200 students but for COVID-19 isolation purposes we cut that in half to 100," said Simmons.
HBCUs lead the vaccine roll-out
Many HBCUs are also now opening COVID-19 vaccination sites on-campus to distribute doses to students, staff, faculty, and—with time—community members.
NCCU recently became a state-approved vaccination site. Since March of this year, their clinic has provided more than 2,700 vaccinations to the NCCU and larger Durham communities. Howard University, a private historically Black institution in Washington, D.C., opened a clinic on-campus to increase access to the vaccine and provide factual information to community members.
Past eugenics efforts and experimentations on Black Americans have rightfully created mistrust around science and health care in this country, making distrust one reason fewer Black Americans choose to get vaccinated than their white counterparts.
But mistrust isn't the whole story. NPR analyzed other possible effects and found that vaccine hubs, particularly ones in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama, were largely missing from predominantly Black and Hispanic communities. Driving distances to vaccine centers are longer for Black and Hispanic folks than for whites.
Louisiana grassroots, research-based campaigns are working in conjunction with entities like The Southern University System, created as the nation's only historically Black Land-Grant University System. They are providing factual information about the vaccine and offering access to testing and vaccination sites.
"We are in a crisis," said Domoine D. Rutledge, chairman of the Southern University board of supervisors. "The pandemic has impacted the lives of thousands of Louisiana residents. Our institution is well equipped to respond to this pandemic. In partnership with our Governor, the Louisiana Department of Health, elected officials, and community leaders, we will beat this pandemic."
As the media continues to leave the HBCUs narrative out of their COVID-19 coverage, they fail to properly and ethically spread lifesaving information to Black communities, too. But these tactics are crucial to share and amplify now more than ever, with the emergence of increasingly contagious variants and more than 550,000 U.S. deaths.
Barriers to success
It's not just the threat of the virus that threatens the communities served by HBCUs, but it is part of why slowing the spread has mattered on these campuses more than others. Students who choose to attend HBCUs are often vulnerable to various social issues that affect their experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.
In addition to COVID-19's disproportionate effect on communities of color, people of color are more likely to encounter adversity, stress, loss, sickness, and hardship throughout and even before the pandemic. This anxiety can result in stunted brain growth, diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, disrupted metabolism and blood pressure, and a compromised immune system. COVID-19 only exacerbates these frightening inequities.
The constant pressure to succeed in a society that aims to suppress people of color is intensified for the students of color who are also working part-time jobs to afford their education, books, and food. Some 70 percent of students that attend HBCUs must rely on additional financial assistance to help pay for tuition, fees, and expenses due to a lack of resources. White students also experience these barriers, but not at the same rates—and not in addition to the compounded effect of dehumanizing racism and structural inequities.
Recent political science alum Michelle Razo of Delaware State, a historically Black college in Dover, detailed how she and other first-generation college students have had to figure out ways to continue paying for school while under pressure with remote learning, juggling part-time jobs, full course loads, and extracurriculars.
"I have to work something small on the side to help with bills and personal expenses, and I think that has affected people of color even more. We come from backgrounds where we may not have that tremendous help from our parents or communities," said Razo.
First-generation college students make up a large portion of HBCU populations. Thus, these institutions play a significant role in growing the college-attending demographic in America. Nina Gilbert, Ed.D., who directs the Center for Excellence in Education at Morehouse College, feels that students from economically disadvantaged communities see college as a means of mobility and escape from the economic realities plaguing their communities.
"[It's] jarring and disorienting for a student who may have left a culturally, politically, and economically fragile community and found a safe space on our campus to have that disrupted so abruptly and to find themselves back in that space —not only are they not connected to this 'brotherhood [of Morehouse],' but they don't have access to Wi-Fi, advisers, or a library," said Gilbert.
Institutions like Delaware State have made strides to reduce barriers by focusing on access to learning. They have partnered with Apple to provide every incoming student with an iPad or MacBook as a part of the University's launch of its Digital Learning Initiative.
Nevertheless, despite partnerships with many several major corporations, HBCUs struggle due to paltry state and federal funding in the face of the greater financial needs of their students. Funding between HBCUs and non-HBCUs continues to be non-equitable.
A lack of funding is one of the main reasons that 15 HBCUs have closed their doors or lost accreditation since 1997. This historical gap in endowments between HBCUs and PWIs has only doubled in the last 20 years. The top 10 HBCUs endowments range from $56 million to $712 million, while the top 10 white institution endowments range from $10 billion to $40 billion.
The pandemic may have presented HBCUs with additional challenges, but enrollment is not one of them. Black higher learning institutions across the country are reporting an influx of applications.
Spelman College received more than 11,000 applications for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. This is the highest application total in the College's 140-year history. NCCU just welcomed their largest incoming group of freshman and transfer students for the fall 2020 semester, as their graduate enrollment increased by 2.7 percent, and the number of students studying at NCCU's nationally ranked law school grew by 12.7 percent.
The pandemic has allowed more opportunities for virtual learning, creating academic possibilities for students who in the past have lacked access to traditional classroom settings. Shepard explained, adding that NCCU currently has students enrolled in a total of 24,551 credit hours of distance education.
Much of this increase can be attributed to how HBCUs have conducted their campuses through the pandemic—and how Black leaders and alumni of former HBCUs are advancing the fight for justice and equity. Stacy Abrams is a graduate of Spelman College. Raphael Warnock and Vice President Kamala Harris are alumni of Morehouse College and Howard University, respectively.
HBCUs expose students to issues affecting their communities and inspire them to create change. It's well-known that 1960, four N.C. A&T students launched the sit-in movements; it is an under-acknowledged fact that many of those who led the civil rights movement were students and alumni of historically Black institutions.
The legacy of these historic centers of learning has fostered a learning environment with education and Blackness firmly planted at the center. HBCU life supports relationship building and opportunities for and within Black communities, generating more successful outcomes for their students. Black students who attend HBCUs are more likely to graduate within six years than those who attend predominantly white institutions.
With systems built to oppress Black people and devalue their contributions to this country, HBCUs are staple institutions needed now more than ever. Their work to provide historically and currently oppressed communities with the health, informational, and educational resources to thrive helps fill in the gaps.
Del State alumna Razo said it best: "HBCUs are doing the best with what they have. I think we could do so much more if HBCUs had the funding that we need, the community support we deserve, and the media attention to propel us."