Back to School: How Has the Pandemic Affected the HBCU Learning Experience

Of the many traditions interrupted during the pandemic, college is at the top of the list. From the worried parent having to lean into their faith, moving into the dorms (a new home away from home) to standard classroom instruction becoming a stream of virtual conferences, the spread of the coronavirus forced almost every aspect of higher education to enter a different world, and fast.

In the spring of 2020, educators and students across the nation were forced to find a way to make the college experience meaningful and safe despite the pandemic. According to the College Crisis Initiative, over 1,300 U.S. colleges and universities turned to online-only instruction or canceled in-person classes altogether.

For historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), the additional challenge of maintaining the unique and highly coveted experience of attending an HBCU required a community effort. Norfolk State University (NSU) is taking necessary steps to ensure a different experience for the Class of 2025.

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, will require vaccinations for all planning to work or attend classes in the fall.

As the director of the Office of Student Activities and Leadership, Tarrye Venable says the experience would include more face to face learning and engagement opportunities. “We are looking forward to students actively participating in campus life facilities, events, and offerings that were not previously open during the 2020-2021 school year.”

Student activities, on any campus is essential to providing opportunities for students to be involved on campus through employment, volunteerism, and leadership. Venable says that while students were able to play an active role in creating and promoting COVID safety campaigns, she admits that providing the kind of experience students have become accustomed to, was a challenge. 

“Students across the country had to transition from being social and moving about to being isolated to their homes or residential halls,” said Venable. “During these fluid times, we were challenged with finding new and innovative ways to engage students utilizing various virtual platforms.”

In August 2020, NSU reopened campus using a hybrid model for instruction.  

President, Dr. Javaune Adams-Gaston said much consideration was given to the health, safety and well-being of the university community when making the decision to reopen campus. “I would say the key factor in our decision to reopen in the fall (2020) was our ability to provide testing for our students,” said Adams-Gaston. “Norfolk State was able to develop some key partnerships with companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific. The partnership was pivotal in our efforts to reopen.”

In the midst of numerous challenges during this unprecedented time, Adams-Gaston says the culture of care that exists on HBCU campuses has aided in their ability to navigate the pandemic and learn along the way. “We understand the disparities that exist in our community, but ultimately, we realized our students are at their best when they are in the classroom and on campus,” said Adams-Gaston. “Statistically, it helps with retention and their ability to graduate on time.”

What has become clear for the university, is that the pandemic will continue to be an ongoing learning experience for all. “When COVID-19 hit our shores, there was no how-to guide on how to deal with a pandemic on college campuses,” said Adams-Gaston. “A year later, we now know a lot more. Every university is different and has to do what is in their best interest.”

Just 20 miles down the road, Hampton University opted to maintain a remote-only approach for their students. 

In a statement addressing the decision to maintain virtual instruction, Hampton University President William R. Harvey said, “Since the onset of the pandemic, I have made every effort to keep the Hampton University community informed.” In the statement, Harvey states that students were able to provide feedback on plans for spring 2021. “Although disappointed that they may be unable to return to campus in the spring, the students agreed that continuing the virtual experience was the best option as it related to their health and safety.” 

Hampton joins the ranks of other HBCUs, including NSU, that offer on-site vaccinations for students, faculty and staff. Additionally, in a memorandum dated April 6, President Harvey notified students, faculty and staff that COVID-19 vaccinations would be required. The Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC), which includes Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College, will also require vaccinations for all planning to work or attend classes in the fall. As the decision to be vaccinated continues to stir controversy and concern, it is possible that other HBCUs will follow.

Vaccinations are not mandatory at NSU; however, they are strongly encouraged. “We have vaccines available, and we are encouraging our university community to be vaccinated,” said Adams-Gaston. NSU recently held a clinic for the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

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The financial impact of the pandemic on all U.S. colleges adds an additional layer of unfortunate circumstances—enrollment and layoffs. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the impact could equal at least $183 billion for all 4,000 colleges in America.

Morgan State is said to be tackling a 15-percent operating budget shortfall, which is around $40 million of its $270 million budget. In February, chief financial officer, Sidney Evans said the institution is working towards being the first HBCU R1 University. “Even with our game-changing recent philanthropy, we plan to continue our cost-containment efforts.”

Hampton University touts receiving funds from federal agencies, private sources, and alumni totaling over $93 million, of which 3.5 million comes from alumni.

For parents, the decision to sift through every headline, statistic, and fear does not come easy. For Lauren Cole, there was no question that she would support her son, Jeremiah, in his decision to attend Howard University in the fall. She said the determining factor for her boiled down to housing plans set by colleges, access to the vaccine, and her son demonstrating that “he takes the pandemic seriously,” and is practicing safety even now. Jeremiah is a graduate of Whitney Young Magnet High School, Chicago’s first magnet school, and the alma mater of former First Lady, Michelle Obama.

“Students across the country had to transition from being social and moving about to being isolated to their homes or residential halls.”

Cole, an administrator at Chicago-based non-profit, Breakthrough Urban Ministries,  offered a reminder for parents who may still have reservations about their son or daughter not only living on campus, but attending classes in the fall. I would remind parents that their child has worked hard to get to this moment,” said Cole. “Trust that everything you have instilled in them will surface, and they will know how to keep themselves safe.” Cole also encourages parents to find trusted sources to voice their frustrations and fears with, instead of placing that burden on their child. “Let them have their moment.” 

In 2020, many students opted to defer their admission amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, twenty percent of first year students at Harvard decided to take a gap year. For Penn State, that number was nearly 300%. Cole says her son opted to push forward with having a traditional college experience rather than deferring for a year because of the hard work it required to get to this moment. “He is excited and ready to conquer this next chapter,” said Cole. “I believe he knows if he defers, he may lose the momentum and miss out on the experience he desires.”

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