Three prominent historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — Morehouse College, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University — announced on Monday they will remain fully online this fall due to escalating COVID-19 cases nationwide.
All three schools are located within the same Atlanta county — Fulton County — which had approximately 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases when schools began shutting down in March. As of July 20, the county has more than 13,000 confirmed cases.
In letters to their respective communities on Monday, the three colleges’ presidents detailed their decision-making processes, with some retracting previous plans to reopen campuses this fall.
In his letter, Morehouse College president Dr. David A. Thomas cited a list released in June highlighting more than 30 COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. The list includes many of the states from which Morehouse draws students, including Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, he said.
“The rapid spread of COVID-19 in these states has made it clear that keeping campus housing closed, is the best option at this time,” Thomas said. “This is a disappointing turn of events for all of us, but I believe it is the best and most prudent path forward. It is imperative that we get this right because there is too much to risk if we don’t.”
Morehouse said teaching and learning, beginning Aug. 19, will be remote through the end of finals, scheduled for Nov. 20. If conditions permit, the college will re-open the campus for in-person instruction and “low-density residential opportunities” during the spring 2021 semester, which begins on Feb. 1, 2021, Thomas said.
While the rest of the college goes fully online, the Morehouse School of Medicine will still move forward with its previously announced hybrid fall plan due to the school’s crucial role in training healthcare and medical professionals.
Meanwhile, at Clark Atlanta University, president Dr. George T. French said that 97% of Clark Atlanta’s students reside in 33 of 36 states that have been marked “high-risk;” causing the school to reverse its previously announced hybrid plan.
Initially announced on June 30, the hybrid plan intended to reopen campus to freshman and sophomore students for the fall semester, while maintaining remote instruction for junior and senior students.
But now, “with the challenging and rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become crystal clear that these plans must evolve again to recognize the newly heightened safety risks associated with COVID-19 in the state of Georgia,” wrote French.
Likewise, Spelman College also reversed its previous plan to invite its first-year students to campus.
“It was just 19 days ago, on July 1, when we published our plan, fully anticipating that, as summer progressed, the virus would subside,” wrote Spelman president Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell. “Quite the opposite has been the case. An honest appraisal of the facts compelled us to change course.”
Morehouse and Spelman colleges, Morehouse School of Medicine and Clark Atlanta University make up the Atlanta University Center Consortium (AUCC). The group said in a statement on Monday that the decision of a majority of its members to go fully online in the fall takes into account current data on the disproportionately negative impact of COVID-19 on Black populations as well as the increased spread of the virus within young adult populations.
“The health and safety of AUCC students, faculty, and staff was at the heart of this deeply disappointing decision,” said Todd Greene, executive director of the consortium, in the statement. “Through real-time monitoring of the distressing COVID-19 trends both in Atlanta and across the United States, it is now clear that the surges in COVID-19 cases in Georgia and in the home states of our students makes it impossible to safely resume in-person learning this fall.”
The consortium further said its member colleges are well prepared to host a virtual fall, thanks to training provided to faculty over the summer on how to optimize online learning and with the help of additional recent investments in technology and learning platforms. Additionally, AUCC students will have access to online services provided by the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library to supplement their virtual learning experience.
According to the AUCC, plans regarding tuition changes and the nature of the online instruction will differ from university to university. And because of the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, decisions regarding the spring 2021 semester have yet to be made.