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David Rice and King Prather: Small UNC System campuses keep COVID in check

David Rice and King Prather: Small UNC System campuses keep COVID in check

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Students stand in a socially distanced line at Chick-fil-A at N.C. A&T. At A&T, “There’s a lot of carryover that this virus is having, a lot of impact on Black and brown communities, and the students are genuinely trying to act more responsibly in this moment,” Chancellor Harold L. Martin told Inside Higher Ed.

Let’s hear it for the little guys.

As several of the UNC System’s largest institutions were forced to quickly shift classes online as the coronavirus erupted on their campuses, many of the system’s smaller institutions — including its Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) — have managed to keep the virus in check with dramatically lower numbers of cases.

Maybe it’s the absence of towering residence halls that sometimes house as many as 1,000 students. Maybe it’s that some smaller campuses have less of a Greek culture and the accompanying propensity to party. Maybe it’s a greater sense of camaraderie in close-knit campus communities. Perhaps we will learn in retrospect why it seems campus size matters.

Even before students returned to campus, UNC-Asheville Chancellor Nancy Cable said UNCA had a strong sense of community.

“Our history and our values are about coming together as a community of individuals,” Cable said.

“We already are marked by a longstanding ethic of care here. We’ve got to rely on the common weal — the sense that we are coming together, and each one of us bears some responsibility for caring for the health and safety of every other person in our university community.”

As of Oct. 6, UNC-Asheville has had 19 positive cases since July 1 among its 3,363 students.

Also as of Oct. 6, the UNC School of the Arts had just one active case and five cumulative cases (two students, three staff) since July 1 on its campus of 1,380 students in Winston-Salem.

Especially at North Carolina’s HBCUs, there’s another factor: an awareness that COVID-19 has disproportionately struck communities of color and claimed lives.

“Students who attend HBCUs are more aware of the impact that COVID-19 has made in minority communities across the state, across the country, so my expectation is that our students are coming back to the university with that level of awareness,” Elizabeth City State University Chancellor Karrie Dixon said in the accompanying video.

“What we’re doing is really focusing our conversation and our messaging with our students to say, ‘Hey, hold yourself accountable. Hold your friend accountable. Hold your entire campus community accountable for doing the right thing,' ” Dixon said.

ECSU shares a similar message in its surrounding community and the 21 counties it serves, Dixon said.

“We have an obligation to keep our campus community safe, but also to keep our entire community safe,” she said. “We have the responsibility to do so, because it is affecting specific communities such as minority communities much more.”

As of Oct. 5, ECSU had 30 students and two employees with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 19 students in quarantine out of a total enrollment of 2,002.

At N.C. A&T, “There’s a lot of carryover that this virus is having, a lot of impact on Black and brown communities, and the students are genuinely trying to act more responsibly in this moment,” Chancellor Harold L. Martin told Inside Higher Ed.

“We held classes to discourage our students from going anywhere,” Todd Simmons, the associate vice chancellor for university relations, told the digital magazine.

At 12,753 students, A&T is the nation’s largest HBCU. But HBCU students tend to approach college with a different mindset and expectations, Simmons said.

They come knowing “that the stakes are high and the opportunities to transform their lives are enormous. That may mean they are more ready to police themselves with regard to COVID protection, and that could be an important reason why our campuses are not experiencing big clusters or outbreaks,” he said.

As of Friday, A&T reported a total of 123 positive cases since July 1, with 37 students and no employees testing positive last week.

At Elizabeth City, “What we have found is that our students want to be here,” said Dixon. “They don’t necessarily want to be online, and research has shown that they do better with in-person instruction.”

Dixon said she regularly walks the campus and asks students whether they feel anxiety or fear.

“To my surprise, all the ones I spoke with were very positive,” she said. “Several said, ‘Chancellor, please don’t send us home.’ I told them, ‘I will not have to send you home if you do what you’re supposed to do and hold each other accountable and make sure everyone is doing the right thing: Wash your hands, wear your mask and social distance.' ”

As campus leaders across the UNC System begin to think about returning in the spring, maybe the little guys can teach the big guys a lesson.

Among other small campuses in the UNC System:

  • Winston-Salem State University: Fall 2020 enrollment 5,169. 45 cumulative cases since March 1, 2020. Zero cases on campus as of Oct. 1.
  • N.C. Central University: Fall 2020 enrollment 8,078. 61 students, 11 employees, four subcontractors since July 1.
  • UNC-Pembroke: Fall 2020 enrollment 8,262. Cumulative cases: 241 students and 18 employees since Aug. 3. Active cases among 15 students, five employees, one subcontractor as of Oct. 5.
  • Fayetteville State University: Fall 220 enrollment 6,726. Confirmed cases among 103 students and seven employees since Aug. 1. Active cases among six students and three employees as of Oct. 5.
  • Western Carolina University: Fall 2020 enrollment 12,243. Cumulative cases among 134 students, five employees and five subcontractors since July 1. Positive test rate 2.7% from Sept. 28-Oct. 4. Eight students in quarantine on campus, 86 in quarantine or self-isolation off-campus.

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