University and college administrators are clearly having a tough time monitoring the daily activities of students during the pandemic, much less controlling their risky behaviors on weekends. This was evident in the parties and other gatherings widely documented on social media during Labor Day weekend and the subsequent spikes in COVID-19 outbreaks on campuses across the country.
This was not the case at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution where, in a first, classes were held on Labor Day.
“We held classes to discourage our students from going anywhere,” Todd Simmons, associate vice chancellor for university relations, said matter-of-factly — and unapologetically.
The plan appears to have worked. NCA&T had no reported large student gatherings or parties during that time. And after scouring various social media sites, campus officials determined students were largely compliant with a raft of public health rules being strictly enforced on and off the Greensboro campus.
Classes will also be held next month during what was traditionally a short fall break held after midterm exams. Simmons said he heard not a peep of pushback from students.
“I think they thought it was worth the trade-off” of being allowed back on campus and keeping the university open, he said.
NCA&T, like the majority of other historically Black colleges and universities, is very protective of its students. HBCUs tend to have stricter social rules than most other colleges and often exert more control over student behavior — administrators refer to it as “more hands-on guidance.” Many HBCUs prohibit freshmen from living in coed dorms, for instance. Some of the institutions still enforce rules that prohibit students from having overnight guests of a different gender in their dorm rooms. HBCU students accept this standard as a given in normal times; they’ve generally acquiesced to the new, even stricter, normal of the pandemic.
HBCU administrators are partly banking on the traditional values of their institutions to help keep COVID-19 infection rates down and protect the health of students, faculty and staff. College leaders are also hoping it will help them keep their campuses open after being hit hard by the financial fallout of the pandemic. Several predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, had to shut down their campuses within days of the start of their fall semesters and switch to remote instruction after major outbreaks of COVID-19. No HBCUs with in-person semesters have yet done so.
Total coronavirus infections eclipsed 1,000 at several public North Carolina colleges last week even as some HBCUs in the state were still reporting numbers in the double digits. While the affected institutions are larger than the HBCUs, the HBCU leaders say the size differences are not enough to account for the significant differences in infections and outbreaks.
“Our students may be coming to A&T and to other HBCUs with different mind-sets and different expectations about what college means,” Simmons said. They come knowing “that the stakes are high and the opportunities to transform their lives are enormous. That may mean they are more ready to police themselves with regard to COVID protection, and that could be an important reason why our campuses are not experiencing big clusters or outbreaks.”
NCA&T (at right) is the largest HBCU in the country and one of five public HBCUs that are part of the University of North Carolina system. (There are also five private HBCUs in the state.) NCA&T reported just eight new positive COVID-19 cases (five students and three employees) between Sept. 11 and 17. Just 62, or 2.7 percent, of 2,320 students and employees who were voluntarily tested since July 1 have tested positive.
“It has been very manageable, very low,” Simmons said of the numbers.
With Black people dying at disproportionate rates from COVID-19 and communities of color experiencing harmful social and economic consequences, HBCU students have more than a passing familiarity with the heavy emotional and personal costs of the pandemic. Some students have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. Others saw their parents lose jobs as a result of the recession or may have been laid off themselves, and they and their families are now struggling financially. The pandemic has also worsened equity gaps in higher education.
Add to that the widespread national protests this summer against police killings of unarmed Black people — as well as the antagonistic and sometimes violent response of the Trump administration and police departments — and the deep pain and anger it has caused. These events have prompted HBCU students to want to return to their close-knit campuses, where they feel nurtured, protected and unified at a time when many of them feel under attack.
Even as other colleges saw enrollment declines, especially of undergraduate students of color, several HBCUs, including NCA&T, are experiencing enrollment…