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HBCU's In NC May Have Even More Challenges As Fall Semester Approaches

Credit Jason deBruyn / WUNC

Students, faculty and staff have said they have a long list of concerns as universities begin the fall semester, during the coronavirus pandemic. WUNC's Leoneda Inge reports that historically Black institutions have even more challenges to navigate.

Soon after students were sent home in the spring because of COVID-19, a dozen presidents at historically Black colleges and universities across the country strutted their way in to the Tik-Tok “Don’t Rush Challenge.”

It was a way to show school pride and get a smile out of students who were likely at home on computers, not knowing when or if they would return.

Irving Pressley McPhail is the President of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. Here is part of his “welcome” back message on the school’s website.

“In this new normal, I encourage you to make judicious decisions and commit yourself to the Safe Falcons Pledge, which reinforces the importance of wearing masks, hand sanitizing and social distancing,” McPhail said. “We wish you the very best in fulfillment of your personal academic goals.”

Fayetteville State University students are already back on campus. Here are welcoming words from Chancellor Peggy Valentine.

“As you already know, these are certainly unprecedented times and we need for each of you to practice the three W’s: Wear, Wait and Wash,” Valentine said. “I am so proud that you are here, let’s make it a great year.”

Meanwhile, Suzanne Walsh is the President of Bennett College in Greensboro. Walsh says they decided not to rush back to campus, which is made up of a majority Black female student body, faculty and staff.

“Because we are so small, it is our strength, and it means we know quite a bit about everybody,” Walsh said. “We also know that we have a large proportion of our students, faculty and staff who have the co-morbidities that make them more vulnerable to this virus.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than whites.

Walsh says when Bennett decided to have a virtual fall semester, they had to take that into consideration.

“And I think it wasn’t as difficult because what we decided early one was we were going to put health and well-being first,” Walsh said. “Health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We understood very clearly, who our demographic is.”

But finances can’t be ignored. Private HBCUs rely more on revenue from tuition and room-and-board than state schools, and many were struggling financially before the coronavirus pandemic.

Walsh says there is a mixture of vibes.

“You know, it is both excitement because we have ‘fresh-women’ coming and new students, and it’s anxiety because we don’t know what’s happening in the country,” Walsh said.

North Carolina is the home to 10 historically Black colleges and universities. Five are state schools and are opening this fall to a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online services.

Shaw University in Raleigh is re-opening dorms on campus and is making class offerings available in different ways. The school will offer online courses to upper-class students only. Hybrid and face-to-face classes will be offered to all students.

And Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte had announced in June it would offer in-person classes this fall, but officials changed their minds in late July.

The statement from President Clarence Armbrister reads: “Under current conditions, the risk of an outbreak on the campus which could not be contained are considered to be unacceptable if we continued on the path to face-to-face instruction.”

Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.