On Tuesday, a ransomware cyberattack brought most activity at Howard University [HU], including academics and wireless-based tasks, to a halt for a still undetermined period of time.
HU’s IT department detected unusual activity on the university’s network over the weekend and shut it down to investigate the situation. It has since enlisted the help of forensic experts and law enforcement to determine the impact of the incident and to reach a long-term solution.
“This is a highly dynamic situation and it is our priority to protect all sensitive personal, research and clinical data,” university officials wrote in an official statement on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
“We are in contact with the FBI and D.C. city government and we are installing additional safety measures to further protect the university’s and your personal data from any criminal ciphering.”
As has been the case at other schools, community members at Howard started the academic year excited about students’ long-awaited return to campus but uneasy about infection rates of the COVID-19 Delta variant which continues to increase as cases spread nationwide.
In recent weeks, housing shortages and reports about positive on-campus COVID-19 cases have only intensified such concerns, causing many to question whether university officials may have been too hasty in reopening the campus.
Historically Black colleges and universities throughout the South have weathered similar situations in states where leadership has been strongly opposed to mask and vaccine mandates.
One example includes officials at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, where they divided students into cohorts who alternate between online and on-campus classes each week. In New Orleans, Xavier University reversed the enrollment of students who didn’t confirm their vaccination.
Meanwhile, Howard launched a site to keep community members abreast of what’s unfolding on campus.
During the last full week of August, the university reported nearly 40 positive COVID-19 cases, and a positivity rate of less than 2 percent. Officials noted that they quadrupled the number of students taking COVID-19 tests each week and therefore expected positive rates to increase among asymptomatic students.
As students moved onto campus early last month, faculty members expressed their apprehension about multiple issues, particularly how to boost vaccination rates among students. Figures posted on Howard’s website place the rate, as of August 30, at nearly 80 percent.
Correspondence between the Faculty Senate and school administrators also highlighted what professors described as the lack of an air filtration system in many classrooms, inconsistent communication about COVID-19 cases, the school’s ability to enforce Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and the ease with which professors can opt to teach virtually.
“There are too many factors that make in-person instruction dangerous, even with a vaccine mandate,” said a Howard University professor who requested anonymity.
“Since we have not even reached 90 percent of the students and faculty fully vaccinated, the decision to return was premature,” they added. “Additionally, at least one of the buildings that might have been useful for classroom instruction was not available at the beginning of the semester.”
Early last month, officials announced pop-up testing sites around campus and hinted at the expansion of satellite testing stations in residence halls and in other campus facilities.
These protocols count as part of “Bison S.A.F.E.,” the university’s pandemic response system designed to prioritize community support, advocate for at-risk populations, promote culturally sensitive research and educate the public about best safety practices.
Through an alert system by the same name, officials communicate with community members who are then required to complete a COVID-19 self-assessment before entering any building.
Sources close to The Informer said these plans have been in the works since before the ascent of the Delta variant.
Howard University boasted a 15 percent increase in enrollment during the pandemic and leading into the fall semester. Many believe that similar trends at both Bowie State University and Morgan State University suggest a growing fervor for the HBCU experience in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and students’ eagerness to live and learn on Black college campuses.
However, Howard University has been unable to meet an unprecedented demand for student housing, leading many co-eds to take to social media in frustration.
Toward the end of last month, the Howard University Young Democratic Socialists of America led a protest on the corner of Howard Place and Georgia Avenue as a means of drawing greater attention to students’ concerns.
Howard University didn’t return The Informer’s inquiry about recent COVID-19 cases and campus housing shortages.
The Informer will provide more updates about these issues and the ransomware cyberattack as they develop.