While some larger universities in North Carolina have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases since the start of the fall semester, most minority-serving universities in the state report relatively few problems with the virus so far.

Raleigh’s two historically Black universities, Shaw and St. Augustine’s, both reported zero cases of COVID-19 on campus as of Monday. Classes started at Shaw on Aug. 12, and at St. Aug’s on Aug. 17.

Both schools have relatively small student populations. Shaw has an enrollment of fewer than 1,700 students, and St. Augustine’s typically has fewer than 1,000. Both are private, religious-affiliated schools and, like public universities, both are conducting a mix of online and in-person instruction with students living on campus and off.

At N.C. Central University in Durham, as of Monday nine students had tested positive for the virus since July 1, along with seven employees and one subcontractor working on the campus, according to the university dashboard, an online reporting tool. NCCU has about 8,200 students and about 1,400 employees, its website says.

Classes started at NCCU on Monday for most students, though law school classes started Aug. 17.

By comparison, UNC Chapel Hill reported 658 positive tests among students and employees between July 27 and Aug. 23, mostly in campus and Greek housing, and additional clusters have been announced since. UNC has more than 29,000 students.

Creating a ‘bubble’

As students were arriving on campus, leaders of Shaw and St. Aug’s said they would stress the importance of creating a “bubble” with roommates or family members and staying in it. Not attending large social gatherings, they told students, along with mask-wearing, hand hygiene and social distancing, would be key to keeping down the spread of the novel coronavirus.

UNC, N.C. State and East Carolina universities quickly saw the virus get a foothold on each of their campuses, forcing those schools to move all undergraduate instruction online for the semester and sending students living on campus back home before they had fully unpacked.

Early on, Blacks were statistically disproportionately likely to test positive for COVID-19 in North Carolina, though rates of infection are less disparate now. The state Department of Health and Human Services reported Tuesday that for those cases where race is known, 24% of the state’s 157,741 positive cases are among Blacks, who make up only 21% of the state’s population.

Blacks make up 31% of the deaths from COVID-19 in North Carolina so far, the state says.

The Pew Research Center has reported that the financial effects of the pandemic have hit African Americans and Hispanics especially hard because of job losses, pay cuts, higher hospitalization and death rates, and the effects of underlying economic and health circumstances.

Leaders of HBCUs say it’s especially important for their students to have access to campus, because many come from financially stressed households that lack internet access and study space. And if they live in rural areas, those commodities aren’t readily available outside the home, either.

The same may be true for some students at non-traditionally Black colleges, said Cassandra R. Davis, a public policy instructor and researcher at UNC. After the pandemic hit and forced UNC to clear its campus in March, Davis assembled a cross-discipline team of colleagues from five other universities to study the educational effects to students of the complete disruption of their school year.

The team is especially interested in first-generation college students, who tend to be minorities and to come from less affluent backgrounds than their white classmates. About 20% of UNC’s undergraduates are first-generation students, the university says.

Over the summer, Davis’ team surveyed some of those students from UNC and some from Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J.

Among the early findings, Davis said, is that most of those students surveyed who had jobs before the pandemic lost them after COVID-19 hit. At UNC, more than a fourth said that while living at their permanent address, they would be largely responsible for the care of someone younger than they. Almost a third of those polled at UNC said that at home, they wouldn’t have adequate study space, Davis said.

And some were worried that if they left UNC and went home, they would risk infecting a vulnerable person in their household.

Davis was relieved that when UNC announced on Aug. 17 that undergraduate classes would move to all-online and most students would be asked to move out of the dorm, the university would make exceptions for those for whom leaving would create an educational hardship.

“Seems like we’re all on the same page in seeing that saying, ‘OK, now go back to your communities,’ is probably not the best way to go in so many ways,” for some students, Davis said.

COVID-19 at HBCUs across NC

North Carolina has 11 minority-serving institutions. Six are part of the UNC System: historically Black NCCU, N.C. A&T in Greensboro, Elizabeth City State University in northeastern North Carolina, Fayetteville State University and Winston-Salem State University, as well as UNC Pembroke, a non-tribal Native American-serving university.

Bennett College in Greensboro and Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone in Salisbury are private.

All those in the UNC system are publicly reporting COVID-19 cases, though how the information is presented varies from one campus to the next.

N.C. A&T reported 16 cases among students and 11 among university employees since July 1.

Elizabeth City State reported it had nine students and two employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Aug. 26, the last time it updated its dashboard.

Fayetteville State University reported 23 students and two employees had tested positive for COVID-19, including one cluster of six residents at University Place Apartments;

Winston-Salem State reported three students living on campus and two living off campus had tested positive for the virus in the week leading up to Aug. 21.

Bennett College, a private women’s HBCU in Greensboro, decided not to bring students or faculty back to campus for the fall semester. The school has fewer than 300 students.

Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte announced in late July it would not have students and employees come back to campus for the fall semester as originally planned because of the continued spread of illness in North Carolina and the country.

Livingstone College announced July 2 it would bring students back to campus for fall semester and that classes would start Sept. 8. The school has about 1,150 students.

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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.


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