A picture of how to consider life after COVID-19 is slowly taking shape throughout the country, as states with varying political hues are redrawing lines on mask requirements, capacity guidelines, and gathering restrictions.
Vaccine hesitancy and anti-mask culture remain very real in pockets of the United States, and particularly throughout the south, but they haven’t significantly slowed the progress of the national vaccine deployment effort or its resulting declines in infections and deaths related to coronavirus.
This progress is an increasing amount of jet fuel powering states to reopen public school systems along with colleges and universities. All of them will be back to regular operations this fall, with many adopting vaccination requirements for students, faculty, and staff.
Several historically Black institutions have announced plans for the fall just ahead of their in-person commencement ceremonies. The nation’s largest HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University, has announced vaccine mandates for students wanting to live in campus housing. The nation’s most well-known consortium of historically Black private institutions, the Atlanta University Center, is requiring vaccination for work or enrollment this fall.
HBCUs did so much to fight the virus in Black communities nationwide with testing and vaccine clinics, research and nursing support for hospital systems, and awareness building against vaccine distrust that its only fitting for these institutions to live out their work in requiring communities to meet the ‘shots in arms’ standard.
Some students, parents, alumni, and employees are pushing back against the mandates. Health issues, protecting personal liberties, and uncertainty about a historic medical breakthrough that has yet to celebrate its first birthday are legitimate concerns. But they aren’t bigger than the idea that HBCUs must remain solvent in the face of falling enrollment, and the potential that students are eager to discover or to return to campus in the midst of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
HBCUs nationwide are breaking records for applications and admitted students. HBCU economies ravaged by missing these students throughout 2020 are ready for a reboot in homecoming tourism and sponsored events, and the revival of small businesses driven by student and employee patronage.
Colleges and universities build civic engagement and evolve as livable communities because of the energy generated by people, and this community power exists in its most palatable form at HBCUs. Churches, grocery stores, dry cleaners, restaurants are all riding on the return of normalcy, even at reduced capacity.
But these schools know well where they are located and how communities around them behave. They know that with virus variants evolving around the world, it may only take but one or some gatherings of un-vaccinated students or adults to create an outbreak, which would restart the process of shutting down a campus, transitioning to virtual learning, and losing the confidence of thousands of families in the safety of an HBCU.
That’s why mandating vaccines is smart business sense. HBCUs, like every other college and university, have long required students to have records of vaccinations against meningitis, hepatitis, and other diseases. The COVID vaccine, for whatever each person may think of it, is just one more on the list of treatments a student must have before enrolling in classes.
But it’s also an insurance policy of sorts against the culture of communities that surround HBCUs. Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, and West Virginia all share the dubious distinction of being among the nation’s worst when it comes to adults willing to get at least one vaccine shot.
They are all easing back COVID-related restrictions, which means that they are the prime locations for a fall surge in virus infections and hospitalizations.
The prospects of record-breaking enrollment, economic surges, and the intellectual and physical well-being of Black students are too important to be undone by an unsilent minority of hesitant HBCU stakeholders. It may be hard for some individuals to adjust their lives to schools and jobs more accommodating of their hesitancy or circumstances, but Black institutions are making the right call at the right time in the name of future success.
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