HBCUs Struggle With Mask and Vaccination Mandates as Students Return to Campus Amid Rising Coronavirus Cases

With students at historically Black colleges returning to campus after a year of hybrid and remote learning, administrators hope greater access to Covid-19 vaccinations will bring about a traditional campus experience — in-person classes, rip-roaring homecomings and Black Greek life.

But interviews with top leaders from several top historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, illustrate that some schools face significant challenges in avoiding major outbreaks. Although Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, Black leaders across the country have encountered both vaccination skepticism and accessibility issues trying to encourage higher inoculation rates.

The vast majority of HBCUs are in the South, where Black students were barred from attending majority-white colleges and where vaccination rates remain lower than the national average. Republican leaders in many of those states, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have fought back against mask and vaccination mandates.

Schools have had to get creative. North Carolina A&T State University, a public HBCU in Greensboro, is barred by state law from requiring vaccinations, for example. Only about 38 percent of students and around 43 percent of faculty members have presented proof of vaccination, said Dr. Robert Doolittle, the medical director of the school’s Student Health Center.

School leaders are trying to circumvent the state ban by enacting a zero-tolerance testing protocol that requires students who do not voluntarily offer proof of vaccination to be tested every week. Students who do not comply will have their residence hall access revoked and their meal plans shut off. The two-step Covid testing protocol uses both the rapid and the PCR tests to identify emerging clusters on campus before they spread.

“I guess you could argue that we’re making life a nuisance for these people by testing them weekly, and all I have to do is get vaccinated to opt out of that,” Doolittle said. “In the country, we’re in the midst of a surge of cases everywhere from the delta variant, and it’s really too late to vaccinate our way out of that, so we need to vaccinate everybody to get ready for the next surge.”

Under the first Covid relief bill passed last year, HBCUs got more than $1 billion in aid, which has been a boon for their Covid prevention strategies.

The school, which has about 13,500 students, is using the money to push incentive programs to boost vaccinations and establish other Covid precautions on campus, such as masks, disinfecting areas and social distancing guidelines. The university is giving out free T-shirts and $25 gift cards and holding weekly raffles for free housing, free parking and other perks.

Other schools, such as Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, are taking the same approach, with slightly better results. Under state law, the school cannot mandate vaccinations, but it is offering free tuition, laptops and gift cards, among other incentives, as potential rewards for students who get the shots.

“We’re pressing hard for students to get vaccinated … like any other HBCU or any other city of the state that is dealing with the demographic that we serve,” said Larry Robinson, the university’s president.

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SOURCE: NBC News, Dartunorro Clark

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