Students throughout the United States are accepting a new normal. More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores, many collegiate men and women are advancing their studies in a precarious environment far beyond their control. This new atmosphere is expected to come with a host of challenges, ones the White House is helping historically Black colleges and universities address.
Last week, during the administration-sponsored 2021 National HBCU Week Conference, President Joe Biden, along with members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, reaffirmed their commitments to HBCUs and the important work these colleges and universities are doing to address COVID-19 at their institutions and communities across the nation.
“What we’ve been able to do is support [HBCUs] with roadmaps,” Dr. Cameron Webb tells EBONY by phone last week. “And the Department of Education has stepped up to help support all institutions and give them the information needed to keep students safe while maintaining operations for in-person learning, so I think that’s helpful.”
For HBCUs, the pandemic has been particularly challenging, given the way in which it changed the experiential aspect of college learning. Webb, a Senior Policy Advisor for COVID-19 Equity on the White House COVID-19 Response Team, adds that students of color have been forced to grapple with the disproportionate burden of COVID in certain communities of color, especially in the South. While there have been wins and gains as it pertains to equitable vaccine distribution, African Americans still have lower rates of vaccination. In some communities of color, many of which are the hometowns of students attending these schools, there is a greater likelihood to see higher rates of people who are either unvaccinated or have close family members who are not vaccinated. “I think that’s why it’s so important for schools to make the decision to require vaccination for students to come back and that’s one of the things we’ve really been encouraging schools to do.”
According to Webb, HBCUs have taken the lead on this initiative in many ways, putting them ahead of the game in acknowledging the reality that there is a disparate impact of COVID on communities of color. And accepting this reality has served these institutions well. There is a funding element that goes hand in hand with having the resources to institute layered mitigation strategies and have the right strategies in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While better-resourced institutions have more resources, the emergency relief funds offered by the White House to address the pandemic have helped close the gap. “Nearly a billion dollars went to institutions of higher learning,” says Webb. “We want to make sure that we are there, ready to support institutions, as they get students back to school and do their best to keep them safe in school.