How Are Some Of The Nation’s Largest HBCUs Handling COVID-19?

Aiyana Ishmael Aiyana Ishmael is a freelance journalist covering culture, fashion, politics, and education. She…
Graphic: Okayplayer

Students have had to adapt and find ways to preserve their college experience as administrations at HBCUs navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

On the highest of seven hills in Tallahassee, Florida, you’ll find the number one public Historically Black University – Florida A&M University. Socially, FAMU is known for its “FAMUly” spirit, iconic marching band, and a nightlife like no other. 

For many HBCU students, their school not only gives them an education but a college experience for the books. However, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted that. As administrations at Historically Black Colleges and Universities are navigating the virus and following in suit with the states they reside in that are taking it seriously – or going against it if it’s not – students are also navigating the moral and personal responsibility of not attending social events and gatherings that could jeopardize their health and the health of others, during a time where they feel their college experience is being taken away from them.

To protect its students and curtail the spread of the virus, FAMU released an intricate reopening plan, focused heavily on limited in-person interactions, a 10 PM curfew for on-campus students, and majority virtual classes for students. This contrasted drastically from Florida’s reopening plan, with the state initiating the third phase of it in early September. The phase brought back spaces integral to nightlife culture and the regular college experience, with bars, clubs, and restaurants able to reopen under full capacity. And students have been a deciding factor in whether they’re filled to capacity or not.

“I’m missing out on the HBCU experience because everything is online,” Kristyn Mobley, a sophomore at FAMU, said. 

Mobley was one of many college students in attendance at the packed City Girls performance that took place at Bajas, a local night club in Tallahassee, in late January this year. After videos of the performance surfaced on social media, both the venue and the Florida rap duo faced criticism, with many upset about the performance being a possible superspreader event. The duo also faced criticism for their lackluster performance, with those in attendance upset that the duo’s set was so short.

“I kind of felt stupid for going [to the concert] because they only performed three songs,” Mobley said. “I feel like I risked my life for them and they were like, ‘we don’t care.’ The pandemic is killing my college experience.”

Mobley is one of many students at who are experiencing pandemic fatigue.

“When it comes to nightlife, when my friends go out I want to go out with them,” freshman Yukwon Toney said. Toney, who contracted the virus last semester, understands the impact the virus can have on your health, but fell short a few times when trying to avoid social gatherings.

“I need to be more mindful of going out. We are in the middle of a pandemic and it’s crucial,” he said. “Seeing friends go out makes it hard to say no, but I’ve been starting to say no for the most part.”

HBCUs Covid

To protect its students and curtail the spread of the virus, FAMU released an intricate reopening plan, focused heavily on limited in-person interactions, a 10 PM curfew for on-campus students, and majority virtual classes for students. Photo Credit: Jeff Greenberg / Contributor via Getty

But it hasn’t only been the first and second year students of FAMU attending local nightlife events of large social gatherings – so have upperclassmen who are also student leaders. Last month, Noella Williams, a junior at FAMU and reporter for the student newspaper, The FAMUAN, released an op-ed holding those student leaders to task and critiqued them for parading their maskless adventures on social media for fellow students to see. 

“When I wrote my op-ed about FAMU’s student leaders, I was thinking about the influence that they have on the student body and how they were irresponsibly attending parties and going to clubs,” Williams said. “Although FAMU’s administration can’t condemn the upperclassmen to a curfew like the freshmen, they could encourage the students to follow the suggested CDC guidelines.”

But FAMU’s jurisdiction can only reach so far, especially for students who live off-campus and are in no way forced to follow FAMU’s social distancing and curfew mandates (although they can still be subject to FAMU’s COVID-19 Conduct Enforcement Procedure if they attend large gatherings). As a result, there has been an increase of in-home gatherings — a problem that other HBCUs like North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT), the largest HBCU in the country, are facing, too.

“I think [the partying] actually has increased,” Yentell James, a freshman at NCAT, said. “I’ve seen larger groups this semester. I haven’t seen any parties necessarily. I’ve seen small get-togethers like four or five people, but I’ve also seen a lot of big gatherings.”

With North Carolina enforcing nighttime closures to certain businesses, clubs, and areas of large gatherings until the end of March, nightlife for college students is now house and apartment parties. NCAT administration has tried to curtail this by prohibiting large on and off-campus gatherings, and warning students that they could face citations from local law enforcement if they violate the rules. The school has also decreased student interaction by terminating residence hall visitors (including other NCAT students) and having certain classes held online. 

“I honestly think [NCAT] is doing the best that they can, but people are still gonna go see their friends or go wherever they want to, regardless of what the university says they can still do whatever they want basically,” Cheniah Brown, a freshman at NCAT, said.

Considering Guilford County, where NCAT resides, has over 40,000 positive cases of COVID-19 and over 500 covid-related deaths, NCAT has fared well during the pandemic. Back in October last year, the school had one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 spread among public universities in the state, only having 63 student cases and clusters at the time.

HBCUs Covid

Howard University made the executive decision to continue being fully online for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semester, with all classes conducted online with the exception of clinical training components. Photo Credit: Daniel Slim AFP via Getty Images

Private HBCUs like Howard University have also implemented a thorough protocol in protecting its campus from the spread of the coronavirus. The school made the executive decision to continue being fully online for the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semester, with all classes conducted online with the exception of clinical training components. Additionally, residence halls are closed, with the exception of The Axis, which is an apartment-style living arrangement. The university also added that minimal exceptions for on-campus housing will only be provided to students with extraordinary circumstances.

“I believe Howard University made the best decision when deciding not to reopen schools in the best interest of the students’ health,” Mariah Cooley, a sophomore at Howard, said. “With most clubs being closed that also helps keep students inside and find other covid safe activities to do within the comfort of their own homes.” 

With an average of 112 new cases daily in D.C., the nation’s capital is under a city-wide mandate, with nightclubs remaining closed while alcohol establishments may resume indoor dining with a 25 percent capacity. Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t students participating in intimate home parties and get togethers, as Alexis Mccowan, a senior at Howard University, has noticed.

“But there are others that, you know, they’re a little bit more open, because they’re thinking about themselves, they may not be close to their loved ones, may not be living in the same city,” Mccowen said. “So some people have the mindset, like, ‘Oh, if I get COVID, it’ll be fine, because I’m young,’ which is actually a dumb mentality to have because COVID affects everyone.”

Overall, students feel their universities are taking the necessary steps to regulate student contact. But, ultimately, the safety of students in many historically Black universities is dependent on whether its students will choose to stay home, or continue to populate restaurants and clubs — or home parties — in large capacities. 


Aiyana Ishmael is a freelance journalist covering culture, fashion, politics and education. She also serves as the student representative for the Online News Association’s Board of Directors. You can find her @aiyanaish.

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