Historically black colleges fight for survival, reopening amid coronavirus pandemic

“We move to part three of this article speaking of our HBCU institutions and how they will survive in this pandemic crisis” FAMU maybe a solution

‘Impressive pivot’

When the spring semester started, fewer than 10% of courses offered at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee were available online. The school had plans to increase that figure to 25% within two years – then COVID-19 compelled it to switch everything to online in a matter of days.

“That was a remarkable transformation, and I emphasize the word transformation, that our faculty, staff and students did, in about a week’s time,” Florida A&M University President Larry Robinson said.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Robinson said. “We had to provide for the continuation of our students’ education, the graduation of our students. We were all-in in making this happen.”

FAMU’s Camryn Williams, a fourth-year occupational therapy student from Orlando, counts herself among the lucky students. Her greatest challenge was finding space for classwork while her father and stepmother also worked from home.

“Students, faculty and staff were all caught off guard from the onset of COVID-19, and everyone was forced to adjust to the new normal,” she said.

At least she could get online with no trouble. Distance learning was complicated for HBCUs because 34% of black Americans don’t have high-speed internet, and 42% are without personal computers. Many school administrators were surprised to find that a number of faculty lacked home computers capable of running online learning platforms.

At Bethune-Cookman, Chrite said the school made the transition to online learning in eight to nine days. “It was as impressive a pivot as I’ve ever seen,” he said, adding that many of the faculty were accustomed to the traditional face-to-face lecture. “What was amazing is some (faculty) don’t have laptops. We trained them all, got them acquainted enough to do some things. And this is as it should be.”

Edward Waters College in Jacksonville, Florida, secured 700 computers for distribution to students who needed one to continue their degree programs online. Miles College purchased laptops and broadband discount cards for students and faculty who lacked the hardware and high-speed internet access necessary to interface online.

Though some of those costs, including the refunds for housing and meal plans, were covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that Congress approved in March, it wasn’t enough to make the colleges whole.

If additional aid isn’t forthcoming in a new relief bill, colleges could face even more expenses in the fall: masks and other protective gear; disinfectant materials; additional technology needs for students.

That’s just to get things reopened; an even bigger impact could come from declining revenue if enrollment drops significantly.

“Our financial issues are really just beginning,” Miles College’s Knight said.

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