EducationHamil R. Harris

College Presidents Lead Campuses into Fall 2020 Amid Great Uncertainty

It took a 21st-century plague to bring it about but this fall the Howard University Bison, the University of Maryland Terrapins, the Florida State Seminoles, the Florida A&M Rattlers and the University of Michigan Wolverines all make the same noise: silence.

And the same silence blankets many libraries, science labs and concert halls of academic powerhouses that dominate U.S. higher education in early September as the nation stumbles into a school year racked by twin fears of the coronavirus and racially-tinged civil unrest on the verge of a presidential election.

“The fall semester opens in the shadow of the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and, tragically, in the wake of more senseless violence against Black lives, ” said Darryl J. Pines, incoming president of the University of Maryland, who is African American.

In an Aug. 28 “Welcome Back” letter to students and faculty, Pines said the twin pandemics “have reminded us of two indelible truths. We must fight for the change we want. And we must be united in that fight if we are to persevere.”

Figuring out how to carry on has meant deciding whether classes will meet in person or online. Morgan State University is mostly online. Some of Maryland’s classes are meeting in person. And parents said they are standing by to scurry to campus and retrieve offspring in case there’s a repeat of March’s abrupt campus shutdowns.

Last week the University of Maryland suspended all athletic training for its college players after 46 of then tested positive for Covid-19 out of more than 500 who were tested. Currently online faculty must undergo regular testing and self-monitoring and the same procedures are taking place at Howard, Bowie State and the other major Washington area colleges.

“My goal is to make sure we do our part to create the most meaningful remote learning environment and maintain a safe campus for the day you ultimately set foot on the Hilltop,” Frederick said. “However, I need you to also do your part in your circle of influence by following the necessary Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines to wear your mask, wash your hands frequently and keep your distance when in public places.”

Some colleges are getting used to uncertainty and disruptions. Frederick, who is a physician as well as a college president, said, despite the spread of the coronavirus pandemic “Howard University has never wavered in the pursuit of its mission of service.  We set up two COVID-19 testing centers in underserved parts of Ward 7 and 8 to bridge the gap and bring testing resources to the most vulnerable.”

Student life as most students have known it is almost non-existent, according to Tai Talbot, a senior at Delaware State University. “They (the school faculty) created time slots for lunch. The café will be open but now one will be able to sit down and talk to their friends; they’re doing a take-out lunch kind of deal. Clubs and Organizations will be pushed back to the spring semester and homecoming will be pushed back until April or May.”
Delaware State is not the only institution to go virtual or hybrid—a mix of online and in person. Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College, University of Delaware, and St. Johns College of Nursing are also going mostly virtual as well.

Even more, institutions are closing altogether, and may not reopen.

“The trend of colleges closing absolutely has been accelerated. Without significant state or federal intervention, we’re going to see a lot of colleges close,” says Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of Outlier.org, an online education platform.

Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business school, backs this notion up in his 2011 book “The Innovative University.” Half of the U.S. college campuses will either shut down or go bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years, he said.

Dr.  Alvin Thornton, president of the Prince Georges County Board of Education and the former Provost at Howard University, said, “The most important concern I have no doubt is the safety of the children, faculty and staff. There is not debate in that, but secondly my concern is maintaining…access because colleges have different capacities of access.

In the spring, Morgan State University President David Wilson, also a member of the NCAA Board of Governors, said that there is a big difference between the larger football schools and HBCU’s because the sports budgets are often larger than the entire budgets of an HBCU.

Cara Williams, senior multimedia journalism student at Morgan State University, said she “feel(s) good about  working online.  If there were not a pandemic I would like to be on campus. …in light of pandemic and my own medical concerns, I feel safer taking classes online being at home.”

Thornton said, “I was a professor for 50 years, if you combine Morgan and Howard, and there is nothing that can replace the mentoring relationship between the professor and the student. I am not talking about just teaching math, psychology and other subjects, virtual learning can only go so far.

“If you look at what is going on a national level, there is a lot of chaos, there is a need for consensus building.” Thornton said. “From Prince George’s County to parents of students in Alabama people need to have faith in the people who making decisions about their children.”

Times have been particularly hard for high school graduates who have received college scholarships to play football and other sports in college. There are reports of players contracting the virus, being forced into isolation and then getting better. In addition to this stress one parent of a college player at West Liberty University is not sure if her son will return in January because the school may also go online.

“As a parent of a student, whether they are freshman or a senior, you want the complete college experience but the main thing is safety,” said Allison Prince, a Montgomery County pupil personnel specialist. “During these times a college athlete must have a mindset of resilience because of the layers of concerns.”

Student life is almost non-existent, according to Tai Talbot, a senior at Delaware State University, “They (the school faculty) created time slots for lunch. The café will be open but now one will be able to sit down and talk to their friends; they’re doing a takeout lunch kind of deal. Clubs and Organizations will be pushed back to the spring semester and homecoming will be pushed back until April or May.”

Delaware State is not the only institution to go virtual or hybrid in the fall. Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Lafayette College, University of Delaware, and St. Johns College of Nursing are also going mostly virtual as well, COVID-19 Roundup: Colleges Tilt Toward Online Openings says. Even more, institutions are closing altogether, and may not reopen.

“The trend of colleges closing absolutely has been accelerated. Without significant state or federal intervention, we’re going to see a lot of colleges close,” said Aaron Rasmussen, co-founder of MasterClass, an online education platform.

Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business school, backs this notion up in his 2011 book “The innovative University.” Half of the U.S.  college campuses will either shut down or go bankrupt in the next 10 to 15 years, he said.

Devynne Johnson contributed to this story.

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Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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