In August, the semester at UNC-Chapel Hill came to an abrupt end as hundreds of students fell ill as a result of COVID-19. When students were told to move off campus and classes moved online exclusively, UNC became something of a national punchline for how quickly the wheels fell off.

Across North Carolina’s big state-funded campuses, thousands of college students have been diagnosed with COVID, at Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and N.C. State, close to 5,200 students, staff, and contractors have been diagnosed with the virus, causing the schools to go all virtual for instruction.

What’s been less noticed is how well North Carolina’s 16 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have done at tamping down outbreaks of COVID compared to larger schools. The largest HBCU outbreak has been at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, with a total of 474 diagnosed students among the campus population of more than 13,000, making a case rate of about 36 cases per 1,000 students, lower than any of the larger flagship state universities.

Most of the smaller HBCUs have done a good job at keeping a lid on COVID, something that’s attributable to the campuses’ small sizes, honor codes and for some, the pressure on first-generation college students carrying their families’ dreams and expectations with them to campus.

Spike in COVID-19 cases at NC colleges 

North Carolina Central University with 8,078 students enrolled, gave students the option to come back on campus in mid-August.

The semester at NCCU has been different for students: they’ve had to walk around wearing face masks and get their temperature checked every time they enter into W.G. Pearson Cafeteria for a meal.

Many students living on campus described it as “dead” with no football games, few events on campus, or little chill with their friends in the student union or Greek bowl during 10:40 breaks. Not to mention, NCCU’s fall break was canceled and the Ultimate Homecoming Experience was moved online.

Needless to say, it’s been a quiet and boring semester for campus-dwelling students.

This semester at N.C. Central University has been different for students who now move around the campus wearing face masks and get temperatures checked upon entering W.G. Pearson Cafeteria. Two hand sanitizer dispensers are available for students to use when entering the dining hall.

Since July 1, there have been 95 confirmed cases among students at NCCU according to the school’s COVID-19 Dashboard.

All of the confirmed cases among HBCUs in the state are significantly lower than the COVID-19 cases reported at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and East Carolina after students returned in August. Photo credit: Aaliyah Bowden

As of early October, NCCU operated at 67 percent capacity with 1,919 students living on campus according to the NCCU Division of Student Affairs. Since July 1, there have been 95 confirmed student cases at NCCU according to the school’s COVID-19 Dashboard, for an overall case rate of 11.7 per 1,000. That’s way less than the rate of cases at NC A&T or the rate of the 20.7 cases per 1,000 reported at Fayetteville State University.

This semester Shaw University, with 1,660 students, has had 25 confirmed cases among students and Elizabeth City State University’s 2,002 students had 63 student cases, for a rate of 31.4 cases per 1,000.

Six students and a staff member at Shaw University had confirmed cases after taking mandatory COVID-19 testing in mid-October which temporarily moved academic classes online for students.

Raleigh’s St. Augustine University experienced a tragic loss this semester of the newly appointed president of the university. Just two months after Irving McPhail began serving as the president of the university, he reported testing positive after being exposed to someone with COVID-19. A couple of weeks later, McPhail died as a result of complications from the virus.

Although one employee had contact with McPhail and tested positive, he was not in close contact with any of the students on campus.

COVID-19 information was not available for the four private HBCUs in the state such as Saint Augustine University, Livingstone College, Bennett College, and Johnson C. Smith University.

Honor code

NCCU’s Department of Residential Life is using student accountability to regulate a no-visitation policy on campus this semester.

“It’s an honor system, just like any other policy with alcohol or drugs, we assume that you’re going to do what you need to do,” said Willam Clemm, the assistant vice chancellor of student affairs. “ And if we find out that you’re not just through our normal observations or any tips, that’s when the residential assistants go into action as far as enforcement.”

All students living in a residential hall this fall on campus had to sign the new housing agreement.

The agreement states that this year there will be a no-visitation policy for students living on campus. Students are not allowed to have visitors in their room, including other NCCU students, and cannot go visit other students in any of the residence halls on campus. The agreement also stated that all gatherings such as parties are not allowed on campus.

Some students have been sent home for not abiding by the no-visitation policy this year according to Clemm. Oftentimes, a student’s roommate has feared for their safety and decided to tell the residential assistant (RA) assigned to their hallway.

Some students decided to go back home because of the negative impacts the no-visitation policy was having on them.

“I was really isolated like I didn’t know anybody in my living room,” said Brittany Cowan, a senior mass communication student at Central.

“It made it difficult for me to be able to concentrate on my work. I’m already an introvert so being isolated to where I’m not able to do my normal things that I would have done initially, it made it difficult to actually physically be on campus so that’s why I opted mainly to come back home.”

RAs are continuing to walk the hallways as part of their job to ensure that students are abiding by the rule.

“We haven’t done anything additional to specifically look for visitation violations,” said Clemm.

On the front door of Eagle Landing Residence Hall at NCCU, a sign reminds students that no visitors are allowed inside of their dormitory this semester.

“It’s an honor system, just like any other policy with alcohol or drugs, we assume that you’re going to do what you need to do,” said Willam Clemm. “ And if we find out that you’re not just through our normal observations or any tips, that’s when the residential assistants go into action as far as enforcement.” Photo credit: Aaliyah Bowden

Most RAs are not stalking students by completing room checks to catch students breaking the rule or by checking camera footages. Instead, they use their own discernment when it comes to regulating the no-visitation policy according to Clemm. For example, if an RA hears a male voice coming outside of a female’s room, then most likely that student is breaking the rule.

All RAs at NCCU are not completing room checks for students this semester because of the increased risk of spreading COVID-19 from going in and out of residents’ rooms.

Another way RAs and desk assistants are monitoring the policy is by observing who is entering the residence hall.

“After a while you can kind of pinpoint who stays in the building and who doesn’t,” said Brenna Williams-Milne, a residential assistant in NCCU’s Chidley Residence Hall.

“When we do come across someone who just looks out of place, we just ask them, ‘Hey, do you stay here?’ If they don’t, then that’s when we ask them to leave, and then we report them to Student Conduct,” she said.

At the beginning of the school year, as students were moving in there were a couple of residents living in Chidley who were removed from housing because they didn’t abide by the rule, according to Williams-Milne.

She said that all of her residents this semester have been compliant with the rule.

Some first-generation students moved off campus or back home this semester because of the strict COVID-19 restrictions.

“When (NCCU Residential Life) talked about kicking people out and then they actually started kicking people out, I was glad that I had moved off campus,” said Siegee Dowah, a mass communication senior.

As UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and ECU plan for in-person classes in the spring, they will have to enforce strict social distancing guidelines similar to NCCU to prevent another spike in COVID-19 cases.

First-generation students

Forty-percent of the student body that attended NCCU in 2019 were the first generation in their families to attend college, according to the NCCU website. This year it’s been harder for those first-generation college students to stay motivated and meet the high expectations of their parents, said two students.

“Since I am a first-generation college student, my family doesn’t really know what I’m going through,” said Cowan.

“They say ‘Oh everything’s gonna be alright,’” she said. “They don’t know because they have never gone through what I’ve gone through in college, let alone being in college during a pandemic; so it’s kind of difficult to have them understand what I’m going through.”

Some parents of first-generation students expect their child to find a job that pays really well after graduation and for them to serve as a role model for their younger relatives.

“They’re hoping that college will get me this high paying job out of nowhere,” said Dowah.

Cowan said that thinking about her younger cousins who will graduate years from now inspired her to continue with college during this crazy time.

With NCCU possibly having a virtual graduation ceremony in May, it disappointed Cowan and other first-generation students that they wouldn’t cross the stage in front of their family.

“It’s disheartening because you work so hard, learning all of these careers, you earn all of these awards and all of these scholarships, and accolades,” she explained. “And then, to figure out that you’re not able to like do the thing that lets people celebrate you, you feel like ‘What was the reason?’”

One big challenge for Dowah, a first-generation Liberian student this semester, has been trying to juggle her two remote internships with five classes.

She currently interns weekly at Global Diversity Inclusion located in Mooresville and then for an hour each Saturday and Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m. she works for MSNBC based out of New York as a production intern.

Since she decided to move off campus this year, her two paid internships helped to cover her living expenses.

Despite the challenge of being a first-generation student, she said that it is what keeps her motivated.

“I think that being a first-generation college student kind of motivates you to work harder.” 

This article is published in partnership with North Carolina Health News and originally appeared on on November 30. 

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