Amid return to in-person learning, most HBCUs set vaccine mandates, but some struggle with compliance

Several HBCUs across the country have varying protocols for students on campus as they figure out testing and vaccination requirements

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Administrators at historically Black colleges are hoping to gain more access to vaccinations for students returning to campus to prevent any new COVID-19 outbreaks. But a recent report with leaders from some of the top HBCUs in the country, conducted by NBC News, reveals it may take longer than anticipated to achieve that goal.

The interviews reveal that a combination of skepticism of the vaccinations available and lack of accessibility has caused major challenges. One of the contributing factors for non-compliance at HBCUs is the fact that the majority of them are in the South, where students were not mandated to receive vaccinations and have been battling contradicting mask mandates in their states. 

Schools have tried a variety of ways to combat the problem. Some school leaders are trying to go around state law by mandating a zero-tolerance testing protocol, which requires students who aren’t providing proof of vaccination to be tested every week.

Students who refuse will have their residence hall access revoked and their meal plans shut off. All of this comes amid the surge in cases across the country due to the delta variant.

North Carolina A&T State University, a public HBCU in Greensboro, is barred by state law from requiring vaccinations but an estimated 38% of students and 43% of faculty have presented proof of vaccination, according to Dr. Robert Doolittle, the medical director of the school’s Student Health Center.

“I guess you could argue that we’re making life a nuisance for these people by testing them weekly, and all I have to do is get vaccinated to opt-out of that,” Doolittle said. “In the country, we’re in the midst of a surge of cases everywhere from the delta variant, and it’s really too late to vaccinate our way out of that, so we need to vaccinate everybody to get ready for the next surge.”

The school still has COVID protocols in place, including mask requirements, disinfecting areas, and social distancing guidelines. As an incentive for vaccination, students can expect free T-shirts and $25 gift cards, as well as weekly raffles for free housing, free parking, and other perks.

Schools such as Florida A&M University in Tallahassee are following suit and have been achieving better results. 

“We’re pressing hard for students to get vaccinated…like any other HBCU or any other city of the state that is dealing with the demographic that we serve,” Larry Robinson, FAMU’s president, tells the outlet. The school is offering vaccination and testing on-site. 

About 75 -80% of students in the residence halls have been vaccinated as a result. He credits the incentive program. 

“I think it was a combination of factors that have led to more people getting vaccinated, but I don’t think we are nowhere near where we would like to be as a community,” Robinson said. “But at the same time, I think people are beginning to realize, too, that this delta variant isn’t something to play with.”

An electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Howard University is mandating vaccinations and almost 100% of students residing on campus have complied. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona commended the university for using its medical students to administer the vaccinations to the surrounding community, giving them on-the-job school training.

Howard is one of four HBCUs with a medical school. Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. dedicated funds to set up a testing site, mobile labs, and a vaccination clinic on campus. 

“HBCUs have an opportunity to step up and to make sure that we provide information,” Dr. Wayne Frederick, the school’s president, said.

Our job is not to coerce or convince anybody. Our job is simply to educate. I think it’s a very poignant moment for HBCUs. I think this is why we were created in the first place — to provide a voice and support for those who have been disenfranchised. The fact that we have a community that looks like the community we’re treating is extremely important.”

Dillard University, a private HBCU in New Orleans, is also rolling out vaccination requirements beginning in the upcoming spring 2022 season. Vaccinations will be required for those who opt to participate in certain activities, such as sports or choir.

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