Howard University goes online amid spike in COVID-19 cases, low quarantine space

With commencement ceremonies a month away and the city seeing a 140% increase, the university isn't taking chances.

Howard University on Thursday moved the majority of its classes online because of a rising number of COVID-19 cases on its campus as well as the continued surge of the BA.2 subvariant in Washington, DC.

Howard is one of the first institutions of higher education in the nation to take the extraordinary step, which hasn’t been installed since students returned from their winter breaks in early January. The university said it will continue in the modality through next Friday and then reevaluate cases counts and transmissibility then.

One of the major reasons for the shift – Howard’s overall positivity rate isn’t off the charts at 5%, though it is rising – is because of safety and because traditional upcoming spring ceremonies are coming soon. Many of those events were canceled or shifted to online formats in 2020 because of the initial surge of coronavirus. Howard doesn’t want a repeat and would like to be able to host its May 5-8 graduation events in person, if possible.

“As we prepare for the end of the semester, we want to make sure that we are all working collaboratively to take effective steps to assure that we can provide a Commencement celebration with friends and families that our graduates would fondly remember,” Anthony Wutoh, Howard’s Provost and Chief Academic Officer, said in a statement. “We will continue to do all we can to provide a safe environment for everyone.”

During its last reporting period, April 2-8, nearly 200 students tested positive for COVID-19 (a 6.5% positivity rate), while 13 faculty and staff members also had positive results (1.87%). One month ago, Howard had just one case overall, showing the potent transmissibility of the new stealth variant. Howard had two other spikes earlier this year, including a surge in early January of 200 students and 300 faculty because of the omicron variant.

While almost all undergraduate courses and final exams will be held virtually, labs, graduate courses, fine arts studies and some professional courses will still be in person, though the university says strong masking and mitigation practices will be in place. Residence halls, meanwhile, will remain open but students are being told they must move out by May 8 when the semester ends.

Howard is maintaining an indoor masking policy through the end of the semester, and that includes any campus gatherings, according to Wutoh. Howard is encouraging student leaders and organizations to hold activities outdoors, if possible.

Cases on the rise

Washington, D.C., has experienced the highest rise in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, spiking more than 140%, and many other areas and states are seeing huge increases. Rhode Island’s case counts are up 110%, while New Jersey, Oregon, New York, Maryland and New Hampshire are all above 70%. In all, 29 states are on the wrong side of positive case counts, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Dakota and Ohio, which have less than 60% of their populations receiving primary vaccine doses. The good news for many colleges is that their populations are vaccinated, including Howard which has a 99% rate of compliance (which also includes religious and medical exemptions), though Wutoh is still encouraging the first booster dose. Howard students were required to get those by Jan. 31.

While other colleges and universities are trying to make it through the semester without having to go virtual – Harvard again is seeing huge spikes among graduate students (216 in the past week) – many are having to bring back mask mandates they abandoned just weeks ago, including several other DC-area schools, including American and Georgetown universities. Over the past month, many colleges have opted to remove contact-tracing protocols and reduced testing and stopped reporting data, like the University of North Carolina system. It is unclear whether any would consider reversing course, although several university leaders have expressed a desire to embrace the endemic phase of the disease.

Still, those that are contemplating a return can follow this guidance from the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force.

“Campus leaders laid the groundwork for a pivot by informing their constituents that, if conditions changed, mitigation strategies including masking would be reinstated,” Anita Barkin, the Task Force’s Co-Chair, said. “The messaging on reinstatement should clearly state the rationale for the pivot back to masking that includes prevalence of illness on campus and in the surrounding community, the importance of keeping the number of cases low in order to continue to provide a robust campus experience, positive statements about the community members’ contribution to the success of strategies in the past and the plan for providing regular updates on the situation to the campus community. ”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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