Arkansas HBCUs Continue COVID Protocols for Fall Semester

Institutions are offering financial incentives for vaccinated students.

masked Arkansas Baptist College students sitting in their graduation caps and gowns
Photo courtesy of Arkansas Baptist College.

Amid a new surge of COVID-19 cases, the state’s four Historically Black Colleges and Universities are implementing precautions to protect students returning to campus this fall. Classes begin today at Philander Smith College in Little Rock where all students are required to be vaccinated.

“We must be concerned about the safety of the entire community so we’re vaccinating, we’re doing temperature checks when people enter the gate of the main campus, we’re requiring people to wear masks,” said Olivia Goodheart, director of public relations and marketing. 

As an incentive, the private institution is offering a $500 wellness credit to vaccinated students. Reasonable accommodation will be provided for medical issues, sincerely held religious beliefs and for students who are pregnant or breastfeeding, she said. Vaccinations and testing will be available on campus. 

Shorter College in North Little Rock is hosting a vaccination clinic from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 17 at its gymnasium. The private, faith-based, two-year liberal arts college is also providing a $500 check to students who are fully immunized.

“That’s cash in your pocket. That’s not a tab towards your tuition, but we’re actually distributing the $500 check just for doing your part and making sure that you’re healthy,” director of communications Mary Gayden said.

Even with three different vaccines available, HBCUs will continue practicing mitigation techniques developed over the last year of the pandemic. For example, Philander Smith College, which typically serves around 1,000 students, is distributing personal protective equipment kits and is keeping a list of campus visitors to assist with contact tracing should that be necessary.

“Leadership has really said what can we do to make things as safe as possible and as normal as possible an experience for our students, faculty and staff as we can,” Goodheart said. “So I feel good about the protocols that we have in place.” 

Classes begin Aug. 23 at Shorter College where officials will check temperatures as people enter buildings and provide hand sanitizer throughout campus. Masks are preferred in hallways but are optional in classrooms where students can socially distance and have access to plexiglass cubicles at their desks. Rooms will be cleaned once an hour and the campus undergoes a deep sanitization once a week. 

“We’re geared up and ready to go,” Gayden said. “We feel fully prepared to make sure our students are protected.” 

For most of the last year and a half, classes have been virtual at Arkansas Baptist College. A hybrid option was offered in July in preparation for the return of in-person classes when the semester started Aug. 2. Officials focused on a return to in-person learning because the environment is more beneficial for students, said Tracey Moore, vice president of student and academic affairs.

“There was a concern that our first-time freshmen and our sophomore students were not doing well academically,” she said. “Our junior and senior level students adapted a little bit better to the process and didn’t have as many challenges as the other students, and our goal of course is to retain them.”

ABC students are encouraged to get vaccinated and masks are required. Masking is important not only for students, but also for their families.

“I know the focus has been on K-12, but our students are nontraditional so they have children,” Moore said. “So who’s to say something won’t happen to one of their children or to one of them, and that does concern me.” 

Much of the recent conversation around masks has focused on younger students because children under the age of 12 are not approved to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Proponents of masking argue it’s children’s main defense against the virus; however, Act 1002 barred state agencies like schools from implementing masking requirements. 

Just hours after state legislators failed to amend the law for K-12 students on Aug. 6, a Pulaski County Circuit judge issued a temporary injunction against Act 1002. Approximately 120 school districts have adopted masking policies in the week since the ruling was announced.

Public universities have also followed suit, including the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. On Aug. 11, the U of A Board of Trustees approved a policy requiring masks indoors at all university facilities, including classrooms, when at least 6-feet of social distancing can’t be maintained.

Vaccines are “strongly encouraged” at UAPB where officials are hosting vaccination clinics from 1 to 3 p.m. every Wednesday through Sept. 1 at the STEM Building. 

Like fellow HBCUs in the state, UAPB has instituted a system for cleaning, placed hand sanitizing stations around campus and will supply students with a bag of PPE. Officials are also providing on-campus testing and have identified quarantine and isolation spaces for positive students and unvaccinated direct contacts.

“I think that we are hopeful, but also a bit apprehensive,” said Braque Talley, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student success. 

Having navigated educating college students amidst a pandemic for more than a year now, Talley said officials have a better grasp on how to approach the situation. Should cases increase to a level that officials feel is untenable, UAPB has the capabilities to switch to virtual instruction. 

“I think that we are prepared if that were to happen, but we’re hoping that it won’t turn that way,” Talley said. “We believe that many of our students are traditional students and do best in a traditional environment.”

The traditional college environment is often expensive, but some students and families are experiencing additional strain due to circumstances caused by the pandemic. One survey found 52 percent of respondents were going to have a more difficult time paying for school this fall because of the pandemic. In spite of that, 93 percent of families said obtaining a college degree is more important than ever.

To provide some financial assistance, Philander Smith College has cleared all outstanding balances for students who were enrolled in the Spring 2020 through Spring 2021 semesters. PSC is also offering a $2,000 enrollment grant to first-year students who enroll for the fall semester that will be applied toward tuition and fees. In addition to the $500 wellness credit for vaccinations, these financial incentives are supported by funds received through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund III and Title III funds.

UAPB has a $2,500 scholarship available for new students meeting fall admissions requirements, while Shorter College is promising $1,000 to anyone who’s still enrolled after midterms. 

Whether or not students have the option to learn in person by the semester’s end will, much like last year, depend on the trajectory of the pandemic in Arkansas. Once again, this semester’s future is unknown, but the state’s HBCUs appear prepared and confident in their ability to educate students, whatever the environment.

“I’m excited about going back and I think that we can manage COVID as long as we don’t let COVID manage us, which means we need to do our part,” Moore said.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.