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NC A&T Has Few COVID-19 Cases. This HBCU's Students Say They Take The Virus Seriously.

North Carolina A&T State University student body president Brenda Caldwell says she wanted to attend an HBCU because of the "familial culture" and she thinks that culture is helping her university weather the pandemic.
Liz Schlemmer
North Carolina A&T State University student body president Brenda Caldwell says she wanted to attend an HBCU because of the "familial culture" and she thinks that culture is helping her university weather the pandemic.

North Carolina A&T State University is the largest historically Black college or university, or HBCU, in the country. With 12,000 students, it's about average for the UNC System, yet it has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 spread among public universities in the state.

Students there have some ideas about why the school is, so far, managing the pandemic well.

"I think HBCUs in general have a more familial culture," said Brenda Caldwell, the student body president at North Carolina A&T. "When it comes to COVID, we are wanting to keep each other safe and keep our community safe, especially since we know that this disease affects Black and brown people more."

Caldwell's parents also attended A&T. Her grandfather was once the band director and her grandmother taught there. She wears a sweatshirt that says "Aggie Bred" and a blue and gold face mask, and sits in her student government office decorated in the same school colors.

She is aware that a number of North Carolina HBCUs have lower-than-average COVID-19 case counts.  North Carolina A&T has had 63 student cases and no clusters so far. By comparison, Western Carolina University has about 500 fewer students and twice as many positive student cases, and falls in the center of UNC System schools ranked by COVID infections per student population.

Caldwell points out that many students at HBCUs are first generation college-goers, and they place a high value on their education.

"I do think that a lot of us are appreciative of the opportunity to even be in college in the first place," Caldwell said. "A lot of students, especially freshmen, they don't want to mess this up."

HBCUs Are Taking Precautions and Ramping Up Testing

The university has taken all the standard precautions. They reduced dorm capacity by about a quarter, signed up a third of students for all-online classes, put signs up to promote social distancing, passed out masks, and set up testing regimes.

When the university first reopened in August, the student health center tested 2,000 students. This week, they're making a push to test every student as flu season sets in.

"If you're taking at least one class on campus, or that you're coming to campus, as far as the faculty and staff, then we are testing them," said Dr. Yolanda Nicholson, the Director of Health Education and Wellness at the Student Health Center.

The federal government recently distributed rapid response COVID-19 tests to HBCUs. Nicholson says North Carolina A&T's fresh stock of 9,000 tests has made this new testing initiative possible -- she says the university might have been able to test everyone even without the new infusion of rapid response tests, but it would have taken much longer. 

"Now we have everything, and we can go right forward at full fledge and screen everybody," Nicholson said.

UNC System Students at Non-HBCUs More Than Twice As Likely To Test Positive

This table shows UNC System colleges and universities ranked by the percentage of their student population that has tested positive for COVID-19, calculated based on reports on their publicly available dashboards on Sept 29, 2020.

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.

Caldwell, the student body president, says it helps that HBCU students are taking their responsibility seriously. She’s never had symptoms, but she’s been tested five times since the school year began, on and off campus.

"My friends and I, we get tested regularly, like we often send screenshots of our negative tests, just in case like, if we do gather, we know we're being safe. And we still wear our mask, we still social distance," Caldwell said.

A&T also produced a social-media video to encourage testing.In the video, students dance with cotton swabs in their hands. Several of them are wearing their Greek letters to represent their fraternity or sorority.

Leah Tyson is the president of the A&T chapter of the historically Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. She says testing numbers on campus shot up after that video went out.

"I think people really do look up to us," Tyson said. "And even though we are more than the sorority or fraternity letters that we wear, it's important for them to see ... that we know, it's our responsibility to keep us here on campus, and to keep us safe."

Leah Tyson stands in the rain at her sorority's outdoor plot at NC A&T State University's campus.
Credit Liz Schlemmer / WUNC
Leah Tyson is president of the Alpha Phi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority.

COVID's Disproportionate Impact On Black Communities Motivates Students To Comply

To recap: NCA&T State has some committed first-generation students, a strong campus culture, all the typical de-densifying precautions, and a testing regime supported with federal supplies. But Leah Tyson thinks they’ve got one more thing motivating students to be extra careful.

"I really, really, truly do believe that the number one factor is the disparity that COVID is affecting the Black communities," Tyson said.

"Just seeing the amount of A&T alumni or students or faculty saying, 'I have lost someone' or 'my grandma is COVID positive,' like, 'say a prayer,' just like a tweet like that, that you just come across," Tyson said. "The closer it gets to home, the more it really means to you. This pandemic is really affecting people close to me, and people at my school who I feel like are basically my family, even if I have never had a class with them."

While more cases will likely be found as testing ramps up, students Leah Tyson and Brenda Caldwell say their goal is that the A&T family can make it to graduation, together.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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