Howard University (Courtesy photo)
Howard University (Courtesy photo)

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic, university officials across the country set in motion plans for a mass transition to virtual learning that would start after campus buildings shut down, students went home and faculty members were trained and equipped.

Since then, students, many living hundreds of miles away from the college life with which they’ve grown familiar, have eased into the routine of navigating and communicating with professors on online academic platforms.

Meanwhile, discussions continue to unfold among leaders at local institutions such as Howard University about the likelihood of this unprecedented experience affecting the summer and fall semesters.

With a little more than a month left in the spring semester, and reports of more than 900 coronavirus cases in the District, Howard registrar’s office recently opened enrollment for an evolving summer catalog of courses with exclusively online content for undergraduates, graduates and professional students.

“We moved freshman orientation to the virtual environment,” said Anthony Wutoh, Howard provost, after which he referenced special on-campus summer programs. “In addition to programs for freshmen, we have several for middle and high school students that we’ve been trying to convert to virtual and online. We won’t have face-to-face instruction by the summer, and we’re trying to convert as many of these programs to virtual and online instruction as much as possible.”

Last week, as Howard and other local campuses lay dormant, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser revealed the city health department’s projection that the coronavirus outbreak in the District would reach its peak — 93,000 total confirmed cases — in July.

By that time, students at colleges and universities in D.C. and across the nation, confined to their homes, would be well into online summer courses.

An untold number of 2020 college graduates across the country would have also still felt the sting of not wearing their cap and gown and walking across the stage in May.

As the movement to all-virtual online summer courses becomes more of a reality, questions linger about if incoming freshmen eager for an authentic college experience will suffer a similar fate this August.

In this dilemma lies the sign of what some people in higher education predict will be the transformation of an industry that has financially crippled students and universities alike.

Some expensive colleges and universities, with campus life no longer being the determinant in a student’s decision to attend, may soon lose their appeal among cash-strapped parents eyeing online courses at community and state colleges and universities.

While few colleges have finalized arrangements for the fall, an increasing number have pivoted to the summer. In advance of the upcoming months, some faculty members at Morgan State University in Baltimore have helped peers grow familiar with the online platform Canvas.

Patrica Williams Lessane, Morgan State’s associate vice president for academic affairs, told The Informer that the university has made calculated decisions about summer coursework to better meet students’ remote learning needs, specifically as it relates to the timely advancement of one’s degree.

These developments come as officials continue to discuss Morgan’s master fall schedule in the event that, it too, will have to move the virtual realm, all while mulling the possibility of a virtual fall convocation and other events reflective of the incoming freshman class’s unique experience.

“We’re planning to make sure our summer sessions are filled with high-demand courses that students would need for graduation, and the first-year students would want to get a jump-start on,” Lessane said. “We’re looking at how these courses will look and we want to make sure our students have as many options, including, where possible, cross-listing courses and or scheduling trans-disciplinary courses that would better suit our students.”

At the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Lawrence Potter Jr., chief academic officer and provost, and other officials have developed an academic continuity plan to guide various university departments during the coronavirus pandemic.

Aspects of that document included connecting students and faculty with technology, assisting faculty in the transition to the online realm, and expanding training and consultations for faculty through the Center for the Advancement of Learning, and academic advising for students through the Division of Student Development and Success.

In advance of summer and fall registration, the university also lifted financial holds precluding people from choosing their courses. Though UDC officials haven’t yet come to a decision about moving summer courses online, Potter said that the instructor technological training makes it easier to carry out any decision.

“Given that we’re in virtual mode, I’ve asked deans to monitor and revise schedules to make a decision by early April about whether we’ll fully go online for the summer,” Potter told The Informer. “These courses will be offered by certified faculty, who’ve been able to teach. That’s an important part of this equation. That puts us in a good position, and allows us the flexibility to be intentional about the types of courses we’re offering and ensuring the certified online teachers are instructing our students in the summer.”

As the first couple weeks of Howard’s virtual learning has revealed, college students and their elders differ when it comes to managing academic expectations in new, stressful situations. After a virtual town hall on the matter, the university, at the request of students, agreed to issue pass/fail grades in place of letter grades for the spring semester, unless otherwise asked by an individual student.

This happened around the same time that Howard University, a congressionally chartered non-military institution, received an allocation of $13 million in the recently approved coronavirus stimulus package, much to the chagrin of at least one Republican lawmaker who had since been admonished on social media and colleagues.

While Wutoh noted the $13 million as the federal government’s recognition of Howard’s significance as a producer of top-notch scholars, the school’s inability to access Title III funds called into question how higher education institutions — historically Black colleges and universities in particular — stay afloat during the pandemic.

“This crisis has started having a significantly negative impact on the economy and African Americans, and people of color in general,” Wutoh said. “That’s why it’s even more important that we support HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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