Raleigh's HBCUs reopen as COVID-19 continues to hit Black communities harder

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- At the oldest Historically Black University in the south, the 140 first-year students who began moving in to Shaw on Friday arrived in masks -- ready for what may not be the traditional Black college experience they had dreamed about.

"As much as I don't like saying it, this is the new normal," said Shaw senior and Student Body President Ian Finley.

COVID-19 forced the CIAA to cancel all fall sports: No football, no marching band. Classes this fall at Shaw are a hybrid model -- some days for online instruction, some days for in-person. Masks are mandatory. And, no large gatherings.

Finley could've chosen to stay home in the Bahamas to finish his studies virtually. He chose a return to Raleigh -- understanding the risks.

"You can't put your life on hold for a situation that may continue," Finley said. "There's nothing saying it's going to end next semester or when it's going to ever end."

Two miles north at historically Black Saint Augustine's University, the school's new president welcomed students back to the new reality at St. Aug's.

"In this new normal, I encourage you to make judicious decisions," SAU President Irving McPhail told students in a message posted to social media.

Move-in crews at St. Aug's came armed with sanitizer for students. And there was mask detection software at some campus building entrances.

Reopening HBCUs comes with challenges other colleges don't face as they open back to a population especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Nationally, Blacks are dying at 2.5 times the rate of White people. In North Carolina, Blacks are 21% of the population and 31% of the COVID-19 deaths -- according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.

"This is a safe haven for some of our students," said Robin Featherstone, Shaw's Director of Student Activities, Leadership and Greek Life.

Featherstone and the university's leadership team helped assemble a 12-page COVID safety guideline book for students. She says a big driver in the school's decision to reopen was the university's ability to provide healthcare options, healthy food, and enforceable COVID restrictions that many in the student body here can't get at home.

"Our community is vulnerable and some students here know that they are in a safe place -- in a (private) room where they can get up and go eat when they need to," Featherstone said. "COVID-19 has taken a toll on our community."

Shaw leaders also believe the school's small student body gives it a better chance at successful social distancing. 1,250 students are returning this semester. Only half will live on campus.

"I think everyone is optimistic our university is really doing the best they can to make sure COVID-19 doesn't ruin our academic success," Finley said.

Shaw move-ins began Friday and continue through the weekend. Fall classes begin on on Wednesday.
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