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HBCUs in Mississippi are facing unique challenges reopening amid the pandemic
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A student at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Miss.
Alcorn State University

Institutions of higher learning in Mississippi are facing multiple challenges restarting classes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders at historically Black colleges and universities say the impact at their schools is greater.

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The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on Black communities at a disproportionate rate. Black men and women represent more than 50 percent of cases and deaths in Mississippi. And, that is partially why many of the state's historically black colleges and universities are taking a "wait and see approach" before returning campus life to business as usual.

Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena is starting off completely virtual. But along with that comes one dilemma.

"Our students need to have laptops in their homes and access to Internet in their homes," said Sade Turnipseed, an associate professor of History at Valley State.

She says many students aren't able to attend class online for reasons beyond their control.

"So sometimes that means going to a library. Sometimes it means pulling up into a coffee shop that has Internet or somebody else's parking lot," said Turnipseed. "You know, it's crazy that our students have to go through what they have to go through."

Turnipseed says the digital divide in the state and its impact especially in poor Black communities across the Delta, leaves them no choice but to phase in in-person learning next month - despite concerns over the coronavirus.

Historically Black institutions like Valley State, Alcorn State, and Jackson State universities did receive some emergency relief funds. Collectively, the three received $38 million in federal CARES Act money. The money was allocated to cover costs associated with significant changes to the delivery of instruction due to the coronavirus. Additionally, the Mississippi Legislature allocated $6 million.

Private HBCUs, like Tougaloo College, rely more heavily on tuition for institutional funds. But in this time of economic hardship and health fears over the virus, their enrollment is taking a major hit.

"We have had to struggle for many many years with lack of funding, lack of support, and lack of resources. So I think with HBCU's because we already had challenges fiscally we are affected even more," said Carmen Walters, president of Tougaloo College.

"My enrollment for the Fall is down about eleven percent. As a tuition-driven institution, that 11% is a big hit."

Tougaloo is starting off the semester completely online and to limit foot traffic on-campus, even more, they're postponing residential move-ins until the Spring semester. For historically Black schools, enrollment drops and lost revenue could be devastating. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, which includes Mississippi's three public HBCUs, announced the postponement of all scheduled Fall sports because of the pandemic. Acting President at Jackson State, Thomas Hudson, says that's going to cost the school millions of dollars in lost revenue.

"Just in that first month, when you look at those guaranteed games, that's your Southern Heritage Classic, we had a game against USM which was a guaranteed game and South Alabama. Just those three games alone you're looking at about a million dollars in revenue lost," said Hudson.

"And then when you look at our home games. We typically make between $500,000 to $600,000 per home game so the loss is in the millions."

But Hudson says he's hopeful. The conference has already started planning a schedule for fall sports during the 2021 spring semester. Leaders at Mississippi's historically Black colleges and universities admit they are suffering during the coronavirus pandemic - but surviving nonetheless.