HBCU students and finances at risk from COVID-19

Shaw University freshmen Deron Orr, from Wisconsin, Greg Pinkney from Georgia and Desmond Johnson from Florida, gather for orientation at Boyd Chapel on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw will begin classes on August 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only about 50 percent of their student population on campus.

Robert Willett


Historically Black colleges and universities in the Triangle are working to protect the physical health of their students as classes amid the pandemic, but they’re also concerned about the financial health of those students — and of the institutions themselves.

African Americans in North Carolina are slightly more likely to become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, and are more inclined to die from it than their white counterparts. Advocates say they are also more likely to suffer adverse economic effects from the virus.

Administrators of two local HBCUs say that could play out this academic year.

Like some other schools, Shaw University in Raleigh is requiring most of its freshmen to live on campus this fall, though as students returned ahead of Wednesday’s start of classes, some double rooms had been converted to singles.

Where Shaw students will attend classes in person, seats will be arranged at least 6 feet apart. If a student living on campus tests positive for the virus, they will quarantine in a designated dorm, and contract tracers will notify those likely to have been exposed.

Shaw University President Paulett Dillard said in a phone interview with The News & Observer that it was important to get students back to school and, to the degree possible, back on campus because there are resources for them there that they may lack at home.

“These students are economically fragile anyway,” Dillard said. “And there is a large number of these students who come from families where the breadwinners are essential workers, and they work in high-risk jobs.”

Lauryn Morris, a 5th-year Shaw University senior wears a face covering as he works on her schedule in the library on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw will begin classes on August 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only about 50 percent of their student population on campus. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com ‘Pretty devastating’

In other cases, she said, family members of students may have lost income because they work in the service industry and their employers shut down or cut hours. Even before COVID-19, more than 78% of Shaw’s students were eligible for federal Pell grants, scholarships that typically are awarded to students whose family income is below $20,000 per year.

“So you have an already vulnerable population who are by mission those we serve,” Dillard said. “And now you put the pandemic on top of that, and it’s pretty devastating for a lot of our students.”

Shaw polled students several times after the school moved online in March and found that more than 50% reported significant mental and financial stress caused by the pandemic, Dillard said.

“So my biggest worry is, how can we continue to provide them access to an education that will ultimately give them an opportunity to improve their lifestyle and their circumstances?” Dillard said.

She is soliciting money from corporations, civic groups and individuals, she said, to create new scholarships and to provide emergency funds for such basic daily needs as prescription medications and laundry soap.

Shaw University senior biology major Jalil Hamilton users a computer in the library on campus on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw will begin classes on August 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only about 50 percent of their student population on campus. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com Black North Carolinians and COVID-19

Blacks make up just over 22% of the state’s population. As of Aug. 12, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans account for 24% of positive cases among those for whom race is known. They account for 32% of deaths.

That’s down from May, when the numbers were 33% and 36%, respectively. NCDHHS lacks data on race in more than 26% of cases of illness, and in 5% of deaths.

To reduce the spread of illness, Shaw shut down its campus in March as other universities did, and moved all courses online. Dillard said Shaw discovered that many of its students had no computers they could use reliably, or had no internet access, either because service wasn’t available in their area or their household could not afford to pay for it.

“Trying to complete your college courses on a cellphone,” Dillard said. “Can you imagine? These are things our students have to overcome to get an education.”

In April, Shaw received more than $2.25 million in federal CARES Act emergency relief funds for higher education. Under the guidelines, half the money was designated to be given directly to students. Shaw made grants to 1,056 students in amounts of $1,175 for Pell-eligible students and $780 for other eligible students.

Many students who attend Shaw could afford to go to other universities, Dillard said. For others, she said, “This is a shelter in a storm.” While at school, students have access to health care, meals and internet access.

“My university has been under-resourced for quite some time simply because of the population we serve,” Dillard said. A university relies on tuition, but many of Shaw’s students are unable to pay that cost on their own. Now, Dillard said, the school is also providing extra cleaning, protective gear and other essentials to keep students safe.

“When you add in the broader impact of the pandemic — the number of Black and brown people who have died from the virus in comparison to other groups — the whole issue of health disparity comes front and center,” Dillard said.

Shaw University junior Nehemiah Simeon of the Bahamas, speaks during a student forum on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw will begin classes on August 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only about 50 percent of their student population on campus. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com N.C. Central’s protective measures

N.C. Central University in Durham, part of the UNC System, received more than $10 million in CARES Act funds, making it one of the top recipients in the nation among historically Black colleges and universities, according to a story by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

NCCU declined to make a school official available for an interview to talk about COVID-19 preparations and funding issues, referring reporters for The News & Observer to its website instead.

Classes are scheduled to resume at NCCU on Monday, according to the school’s website. Students are currently moving into campus housing through a staggered entry process, which will conclude on Aug. 23.

The school cannot yet determine what percentage of its housing will be occupied, said executive director of residential life James B. Leach, in an email to the N&O.

NCCU’s protective measures include:

▪ barring visitors from campus housing unless they receive special permission.

▪ barring students from entering residential buildings other than their own.

▪ requiring face coverings in lecture halls, classrooms, and all other instructional space.

▪ on-site coronavirus testing to make contact tracing easier.

▪ assigned seating in all classrooms.

▪ testing a random sample of 300 students a week.

Martha Street Apartments on campus will serve as quarantine housing for infected and possibly-infected students. The complex includes 28 private rooms and bathrooms.

The school expects roommates and suite-mates to avoid contact with students outside of their residences, said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. He discussed NCCU’s reopening plans with the university’s chancellor and health director in July.

“The reality is that there’ll be a lot of students on campus from a lot of different places,” said Schewel.

Schewel is concerned students will meet for large gatherings off-campus, as they often have in years past, he said.

“There’ll be thousands of students living in Durham off campus this fall, from Duke and Central,” he said. “I think that the behavior of those students, in terms of parties and all the kinds of social activity that they’ll be doing, is a real challenge to our community.”

NCCU does not have the funding to test every student returning to campus, as Duke has planned to do, Schewel said.

Shaw University student traverse the residential quad in front of the Fleming Kee Residence Hall on Tuesday, August 11, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. Shaw will begin classes on August 12 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with only about 50 percent of their student population on campus. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com Science and social justice and St. Aug’s

Classes started at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh on Wednesday under a hybrid model, with reduced class sizes to allow distancing and with virtual components to all courses. Students from their freshman to senior years can live on campus at St. Augustine’s, and most rooms will be double-occupancy, with beds configured head-to-toe in keeping with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

This year, through a partnership with Lenovo, St. Aug’s is providing laptops for every freshman, university President Irving McPhail said in a phone interview with The N&O.

McPhail said he is hoping this will be the year St. Augustine’s hits a milestone enrollment of 1,000 students. He believes the pandemic is showing that HBCUs are more important than ever.

“Our campus represents for many of our students a safe haven,” McPhail said.

While wealthier students at other universities may be able to afford to take a year off, he said, “My kids want to come back to school.”

When they do, they’re asked to sign the Safe Falcons Pledge, promising to take precautions such as hand-washing, social-distancing and mask-wearing.

About 73% of St. Aug’s students typically are eligible for Pell grants. The school received more than $1.4 million in CARES funding for emergency relief.

The school has set aside dorm space to quarantine students who become infected, but McPhail said he hopes to be able to keep cases to a minimum. Campus visitation will be tightly controlled, and St. Aug’s will do everything it can to keep students “in the bubble,” he said, encouraging them to remain on campus as much as possible through the fall semester. Extra activities will be planned on weekends.

McPhail said the pandemic and the recent emphasis on racial and social justice issues in America will be incorporated into coursework at St. Augustine’s this year. As the new president, he said, he hopes to launch an institute on the study of racial disparities to be based at the university, which was founded in 1867 and later launched North Carolina’s first nursing school for African American students.

At the end of each workday, McPhail said, he drives around campus and looks to see whether students are wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from one another. If they’re not, he said, he rolls down the window of his car and gently reminds them.

McPhail said he believes science-based guidance will lead the country, and his students, out of the pandemic. But he said he hasn’t forgotten that St. Aug’s was founded by a pastor and a bishop of the Episcopal church.

“I’m happy that St. Augustine’s was founded on religious traditions and prayer,” McPhail said, ‘because I’m praying every day.”

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.

Charlie Innis covers Durham government for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun through the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship. He has been a New York-based freelance writer, covering housing and technology for Kings County Politics, with additional reporting for the Brooklyn Eagle, The Billfold, Brooklyn Reporter and Greenpoint Gazette.

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