The Catch-22 of Celebrating HBCU COVID-19 Response

Courtesy: Liz Schlemmer/WUNC

Last week, WUNC ran a piece on how historically Black colleges and universities in North Carolina are the best in the state at maintaining low numbers of COVID-19 infections on campus.

From WUNC:

The UNC system does not have a standardized system for reporting COVID-19 data, but a WUNC analysis indicates that A&T has tested more per-student than many of the other system schools.

That analysis also found that a UNC System student who attends a non-HBCU is more than twice as likely to test and record positive for COVID-19 than a student who attends an in-state HBCU.

HBCUs leading communities in preventing massive community spread of the coronavirus among students, faculty, and staff, is a good thing; but it still requires us to be cautious about the numbers, and skeptical about embracing them.

Still Too Early To Tell?

It is admirable to give HBCUs credit for keeping infection rates down, testing numbers up, and operations intact through an abbreviated fall semester. But in the midst of an ongoing pandemic heading into a flu season that most scientists think will cause a spike in cases nationwide, the last thing we should want is for HBCUs to be the example of institutional success on COVID-19, to only make headline news for what went wrong if our campuses are the bases for virus outbreaks in a few weeks.

After all - if all of the security and safety measures of the White House could not prevent a superspreader event, imagine the damage an off-campus party can yield on campus.

A Skewed Picture of Success

Reporting and data suggest that the amount of testing and the diligence of community members at HBCUs is what is keeping the numbers below predominantly white institutional peers, but there are caveats to both sides of that narrative. First, the White House has made specific overtures on the notion of testing Black folks by using HBCUs as the deploying agencies for mass testing. If HBCUs are able to get the most tests, they are able to do the most testing of students — but there are still questions about how often they can test students, if testing can be mandated, and how test data is reported.

A negative test is only as good as the moment in time that it is taken, not for the minutes, hours, days, or weeks which follow it. A negative test is only as good as the person who volunteers to take it, not the person with or without symptoms who does or does not quarantine.

Multiple things can be true at once — HBCUs are good at providing and HBCU campus community members could be good about testing, but that’s where the legitimate data points end. Those points can’t provide a data-driven conclusion about Black colleges being exponentially better than PWI counterparts at preventing coronavirus, as much as their community members are willing to be a part of the available solutions for the same idea.

Driving the ‘More With Less’ Narrative

The most harmful part of the coverage is that HBCUs being lifted up as experts on coronavirus drives a bad social, political, and economic message for the schools well into life after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. Even if we accept the hypothesis that HBCUs are better than PWIs at keeping students safe, the idea doesn’t impact the resources and support HBCUs need to keep students in school, to make programs more competitive, to grow enrollment, or to expand community resources.

Outside of our communities, HBCUs suffer from being the schools known for the best homecomings, the best marching bands, the best choirs — elements that drive immense cultural pride but drown out the appeals from institutions lobbying for increased state and federal resources to expand the HBCU mission.

The mission is to educate Black professionals, not to keep them from catching COVID-19.

If we allow the story to become one of HBCU public health management and not HBCUs’ effective stewarding of resources, then we’ll miss the opportunity to ask the most necessary question: “if you think we’re so good at keeping Black folks healthy, imagine what we could do if you gave us more money to support workforce development, wealth building, and community outreach.”

HBCUs deserve a lot of credit for keeping their communities safe during a ravaging pandemic. But allowing this storyline to shape the Black college context will only stunt progress at the institutions when life finally goes on.