Black colleges prepare for uncertainty of coronavirus outbreak

Concerns and questions abounded about whether HBCUs would be able to adjust on the fly when the threat of the coronavirus hit America.
Image: Clark Atlanta University
A woman walks past the front of the campus of Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta on April 21, 2019.Jeff Martin / AP

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By Curtis Bunn

The faculty of Clark Atlanta University, one of the historically black colleges that make up the Atlanta University Center, converged recently on campus for an in-depth meeting and training on how to cope during the coronavirus crisis.

It was not an optional meeting.

Professors were told their attendance was mandatory and that not being present could jeopardize their jobs. The directive illuminated how seriously the school is taking the potential spread of the virus and its commitment to protecting its staff and students.

It illustrates how the nation’s 101 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are coping with the pandemic that has crippled Italy, parts of Spain and other countries and is now spreading daily throughout the United States with more than 6,000 reported cases.

Concerns and questions abounded about whether HBCUs would be able to adjust on the fly when the threat of the coronavirus hit America. But reports indicate they have responded with aplomb, clearing campuses and switching to online courses in a relatively seamless fashion.

Although none of the cities where the HBCUs are located are in so-called hot spots, the administrations of the colleges are taking no chances.

Clark has required all students to retrieve their belongings from on-campus housing and return home starting this week. The campus will be empty as students complete the semester via online portals, most from home.

“We had an empty nest that’s not empty anymore,” said Mychael Turner, whose son attends Alabama A&M and whose spring break begins March 30. Students began clearing out residences halls March 13 and started online courses Monday through the remainder of the semester.

“Wasn’t what we expected and definitely not what we wanted,” Turner said. “We love him, welcome him, but we have to make the adjustment to have him back. So this creates adjustments for everyone. All in all, it’s the right thing to do to send the students home. We all have to adjust and adapt to whatever comes next until we can get past this and return to normalcy.”

The Founder's Library at Howard University in Washington, DC.Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick announced that the school’s commencement program was canceled. He wrote a letter saying, “A guest who attended the Howard University Charter Day Dinner has tested positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus). Out of an abundance of caution, we are asking all March 7 dinner participants to monitor and report to your doctor if you begin exhibiting flu-like symptoms. The DC Department of Health is investigating the case, locating and counseling relevant contacts in accordance with the latest national guidance and protocols.”

At Paul Quinn College in Dallas, students have been evacuated. The school’s student government association president, Ayanna Watkins, issued a joint statement with the administration that indicated students who did not have access to a laptop or a computer could borrow one from the school to participate in the mandatory online classes.

Quinn also is offering meals to students on a carryout basis only in the school’s cafeteria.

Norfolk State University extended spring break for students through March 22 — an extra week. The residence quarters will reopen to students that day, but all classes will be delivered online starting March 23.

All classes this week are canceled at Virginia State University “to give faculty adequate time to convert classes to an off campus format,” its website said. Students were evacuated from campus March 12, although there are no known people who have contracted the virus, and they will not return this semester. VSU will convert to all remote instruction (online/distance education) classes for the remainder of the Spring 2020 academic year.

In North Carolina, there are 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, but none on the North Carolina A&T campus. The school will go with “alternative means,” starting March 23. All events of 50 or more people have been canceled, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation, including the April 2 Honors Convocation and Founders’ Day activities.

Not all HBCUs have gone the route of emptying the campus for the semester -- yet. At Delaware State, for example, the school remains open but students who are on spring break are not required to return to campus until April 5.

Administrators said they will make announcements about moving forward online or returning to the classrooms after the break based on CDC, World Health Organization and government recommendations.

Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Willowbrook, California, hasn’t canceled classes. In an online letter, President David M. Carlisle told students these are unprecedented times. The university transitioned from in-class instruction to online learning on March 12 and moved from normal business operations to telecommuting temporarily on March 17.

“One decision we have already made, in order to take a responsible leadership position on this issue, is to cancel this year’s Spring Gala,” he said. “We feel this is a small sacrifice for the greater public health good. There will be additional communications on this topic as the situation proceeds.”