Everyone thinks D.C. is lousy with politicians and lobbyists. But it's also chock-full of crime fiction writers.
This summer, college students were faced with the harsh reality that they might not see the inside of a classroom this upcoming semester. Reports from schools across the country only further worried college students and their families. Schools like Notre Dame and UNC-Chapel Hill were forced to switch to online instruction after a surge in coronavirus cases just days after students arrived on campus.
But whether their schools are operating on an online or hybrid model, college students are still arriving in the DMV area, ready for classes to begin. What’s in store for students, faculty and staff as this most unusual semester begins?
Produced by Inés Rénique
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show'' on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, how are local musicians using their craft amidst the global pandemic and nationwide protests? We'll check in with two local artists. But first, it's a scene we're all familiar with, and it happens every August across the country. The line of cars outside the dorms, students and their parents carrying suitcases and, of course, the tearful goodbyes. But this year, starting or returning to college is looking very different. For some, classes will be fully online. For those returning to campus, it's staggered arrivals, limited entries and masks on at all times. So, what will the fall semester look like amid the pandemic? First, we welcome Dr. Aminta Breaux, President of Bowie State University in Maryland. Dr. Breaux, thank you very much for joining us.
AMINTA BREAUXThank you for having me today. I'm really pleased to be with you.
NNAMDIBowie State has just wrapped up a week of freshmen dorm room move-ins. How did that go?
BREAUXWell, it's been going very well. We will complete the entire move-in as of this Friday. And it's been going very well. I've been so pleasantly surprised and pleased that the students are coming in with great excitement. You mentioned it in your introduction, this is a special time of the year. And, typically, when students and families are coming in excited about the start of the school year -- and I'm still seeing that as they've come in -- there's so many students who want to be on the campus. They're looking forward to that college experience. And the families are thrilled with them getting started and underway. It is different, though, in terms of the precautions that we've taken. And I believe the students and families have done their homework to find out what we've done to prepare the campus for this year.
NNAMDISome schools are fully online. Some are returning in person. What's the model your school is following for this semester?
BREAUXThe model that we have here at Bowie State University is a hybrid first-year intensive model. And what that means is that we wanted to recognize and we understand we cannot bring all 6,100 students back to our campus. Our population total enrollment is over 6,100 students. But with the pandemic still very much in our communities, we recognize the virus is here. And so, safely, we could not bring everyone back to this campus. And that forced us to think about how do we deliver education in this new normal? And what we know is that if we can engage students in the campus experience, connecting with our faculty, connecting with their peers and especially for Bowie State University as the first HBCU in the State of Maryland, it's important for our students to connect on the campus and have those experiences in person.
BREAUXSo we settled in on a first year intensive model to engage our students in the campus experience. Albeit different this year, But they are -- as we speak, they're going through -- our first year students are going through the new student orientation for this week. And they are really excited to be part of this campus college experience. And so it's a different model. It's recognizing we can't bring everyone back to campus. So, we have what's called a low-density model that doesn't try to bring everyone back to the campus. Most of are classes are still virtual, with the exception of the first year students who will have the in-person campus experience here, face-to-face classes. We're opening on time. Classes begin next Monday. But there's a lot of safety precautions underway, wearing masks, practicing social distancing, six feet apart and washing hands throughout the day. We have signs up around the campus reminding our students. And it's part of our programming that we're providing to those students on campus.
NNAMDIDr. Breaux, this Monday is Bowie State's first day of classes. How will this Monday look for your students?
BREAUXWell, it's going to look a bit different. It's quieter on the campus than it's ever been as we start off the year. We usually start off the academic year with the band marching through the campus and the cheerleaders are out and about. So, it's not possible for us to do that this year. But, nonetheless, we have a lot of programming going on. The classes are going to get underway. The classrooms will look different. We have Plexiglas that's been installed in the classrooms to shield the instructors and help protect and help protect our students. The students will be wearing masks across the campus, as well as in the classroom. We will have sanitizing. We already have sanitizing stations throughout the campus. And as students go into the student center and other high-traffic areas, there are digital thermometer checks, temperature checks.
BREAUXAnd before they can go into the building, they have to stop and get their temperature checked. So there's a lot happening to adhere to. At the top of our list in preparation for this fall, we put, as a guiding principle, safety first. So you're hearing a bit about what we have put in place. But we've been preparing all summer for this experience to ensure we can get our first year students engaged on the campus and connecting with their peers. And feeling that HBCU love, albeit at a distance.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Debbie Truong. Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. She covered George Mason University's move-in this past weekend. Debbie, thank you for joining us.
DEBBIE TRUONGThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAs I said, you covered George Mason University. You were there this past weekend. How did the move look in Virginia's largest public university?
TRUONGYeah. So, I mean, similar to Bowie, things were a lot different than a normal school year. Usually, families are greeted in the parking lot with music playing and there's a lot of fanfare, a lot cheering. This year, things were a lot more quiet. Students were assigned a designated time to check-in. And it took less than 15 minutes for them to get their student I.D.s and their keys. You know, in a normal school year, hundreds of student volunteers would help families move into dorm rooms. But this year, the university contracted a moving company, and they really, you know, quickly moved the freshmen into the dorm rooms.
NNAMDIWell, we have a testimony, if you will. Here is Natalia in Fairfax, Virginia. Natalia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATALIAHi. Yeah, just to speak on that. Mason has done a really good job in adhering to social distancing guidelines and everything. There are hand-sanitizing stations all over campus. Dining halls, you have to make reservations, and it's a limited capacity. They clean the tables before and after people eat. And even in classrooms, I have a few in-person classes. The desks are spaced out and the tables -- the desks are cleaned before we get there and after we leave. And it's really on the students now, I guess. Mason has done a great job in making sure we're safe here. And it's good to be back, and I am excited for this school year.
NNAMDIYou say it's really on the students now. You mean in terms of practicing social distancing, right?
NATALIAYes. It's on the students. Mason has done a good job in making sure we have all of the guidelines in place. We have masks. They provided masks to us as we moved in. We have questionnaires we have to answer before we're allowed to kind of be on campus. And we have to get kind of like a green screen that says we're okay. And it's just on us to make sure we're social distancing from people, wearing our masks, cleaning our spaces, sanitizing our hands and just following all the rules that are in place.
NNAMDINatalia, thank you very much for your call, and good luck this semester. Debbie, not every school is offering this hybrid model. Some colleges are doing classes 100 percent online, for all students. Can you tell us about the local schools that decided to go in this direction?
TRUONGSure. There are several universities and colleges in the Washington region that decided to start virtually. They include American, Georgetown, George Washington and Howard universities. Many of these universities heading into the summer said they would, you know, bring some students back or had the hope that they would be able to bring some students back on campus. But as you know, July came around and as cases started spiking, they quickly backtracked and decided on an all-virtual mode. Mayor Muriel Bowser in D.C. has also required that visitors who are traveling from states with large numbers of COVID-19 cases self-quarantine for 14 days. And that mandate made it very challenging for universities, which, of course, have students coming from all across the country.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Kayla Hewitt, a Senior studying at Georgetown University. As Debbie mentioned, Georgetown is one of the universities that is now entirely remote. Kayla Hewitt, thank you so much for joining us.
KAYLA HEWITTHi, Kojo. Thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIKayla, what could you possibly be studying at Georgetown that you haven't already learned as an intern producing this show? I should offer an explanation to our listeners.
HEWITTHonestly, I'm not quite certain that there is anything that I didn't learn while working for you all. But really, what I'm trying to get back this semester that kind of sense of Georgetown community in which I've been very lucky to be able to grow over the last three years, and just to be among young people again and seeing their faces every day I think is a huge part of what it means to be a college student.
NNAMDIYeah. We were very lucky to have Kayla as an intern producing on this show up until a few weeks ago. Kayla, until very recently, you were under the impression that you would be doing hybrid courses. When and how did you find out that was not the case?
HEWITTSo, Georgetown actually took quite a while to figure out what the plan was going be. For most of the summer, none of us really had a clue what was going to happen, up until about July when we found out that it would be freshmen, as well as a few select group of people who, you know, whose home life wasn't conducive to their studies would be allowed back on campus. About around 2,000 students, I believe. And then about a month ago, that plan was discarded, as well. And they decided to go pretty much 100 percent virtual barring those students whose home lives wouldn't allow them to interact in their courses. So, up until that point, I had really had high hopes that people would be coming back to campus. We'd all, you know, work out some sort of system. But, to be quite honest, in my heart of hearts, I think I kind of knew the whole time that that wasn't the best idea.
HEWITTI am a college student. I love many college students. But we are not always the most precautious. We're not always the cleanest. And I think that the decision, although it was kind of a tough one, was definitely the right one to go 100 percent virtual.
NNAMDIWe'll be taking a short break. But we'll be returning to this conversation about going back to college. I'd love to have you join it by giving us a call, 800-433-8850. Are you a parent who just dropped their child off at a college? How are you feeling? Give us a call. Are you a parent, do you think your child should be back in college with other students? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about what going back to college looks like with Dr. Aminta Breaux, the President of Bowie State University, a public historically Black university in Prince George's County. Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. She covered George Mason University's move-in this past weekend. And Kayla Hewitt is a senior studying at Georgetown University, who served first as an intern, and later as a producer on this broadcast. Kayla, today is your first day of remote classes. You'll be online from your D.C. home just a few blocks from your campus, which you can now no longer access. How are you feeling about this semester?
HEWITTI'm definitely feeling quite hopeful about the semester. I actually just cut out of a class a little bit early to come on this show. And I feel as though I haven't had the opportunity to learn in kind of a controlled environment in quite a while. I was actually abroad last semester, which obviously got cut short due to the pandemic. And so I feel like I haven't had the chance to really learn and be a student in quite a minute. And so just listening to my first professor of the day kind of start to get into what we're going to be doing this semester and how we are going to be pushing our creativity to make this really work under these kind of wild circumstances has kind of lit something in me, and that I'm hoping I can maintain throughout the course of this semester, although that's yet to be seen. But I'm very very excited to have some more structure in my life again.
HEWITTObviously, first day hopes are quite high.
NNAMDII'm glad you found something that lit you because when you found out that classes would be entirely remote, how did you make the decision to come back to Washington, regardless?
HEWITTSo, I -- knowing at the beginning of the summer that, you know, things were going to be different this semester, I kind of was a bit determined to come back in the fall. And, you know, luckily enough -- I have a loving home, which can still, you know, put food on the table and can allow me to come here despite, you know, this being such a difficult time for so many families. But I knew that I wanted to be here because I wanted to continue to grow and be more independent. I wanted to be around my friends. I wanted to, you know, cherish that space that we've all built together, because, you know, to me, Georgetown, of course, it's an institution, but what makes me like Georgetown isn't the institution. It's the relationships that I've built here. And even if I'm not going to be allowed on campus, I can somewhat simulate that experience by just, you know, living with my friends and seeing them every day and being able to goof around and just be young was very important to me.
HEWITTAnd like I said, of course, this is kind of a compounding of privilege that I had a place to be here, and I also had place to be back home with my family. But I always knew that I wanted to come back here, because this is my last chance to do it. I'm a senior. I might as well try and enjoy it while I can.
NNAMDIDebbie, housing has been a big issue at other local universities. What has all the uncertainty meant at the University of Maryland, for instance?
TRUONGYeah. So, at the University of Maryland, many students were able to cancel their housing in June without any issues, without any financial consequences. But about 3,000 students who signed leases for two apartment complexes on campus haven't been able to get out of their leases. The owner of the apartments, the Maryland Economic Development Corporation, told the student run newspaper, The Diamondback, that it wouldn't be able to release students from their leases because they're under financial pressure. A professor at Catholic University in D.C. also told me a similar story. You know, many upperclassmen were already locked into their leases before the university decided to only bring back freshmen to campus. And so many students will still be taking their online classes from their apartments in the D.C. region.
NNAMDIDebbie, we're already seeing alarming COVID-19 outbreaks at a number of universities around the country, UNC, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama. What were some of the factors that lead to COVID outbreaks, and are local universities at risk?
TRUONGSure. So, you know, photos and videos of college students across the country have circulated on social media of parties and large social gatherings without face masks and social distancing. You know, there's really only so much that a university can do to monitor what students do off-campus. You know, certainly, that was a concern that I heard from administrators at George Mason. They said that they're, you know, trusting students to continue practicing social distancing off-campus and on campus. But that if they don't, that they're prepared to shift -- and if things get worse they're prepared to shift to a virtual only learning model. You know, at the same time, I've talked with professors and faculty members who essentially say that, you know, these are college students. They want to socialize. They want to meet new people. That's a critical part of the college experience. And, you know, they feel that too much of an onus is being placed on students to prevent the spread of a virus that the country really hasn't able to get under control.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Jan in Fairfax, who says: I'd like to know what Bowie State and George Mason are doing to keep students from having large or mass gatherings when not in class. This has been a problem at other institutions. Dr. Breaux, what is your message to parents who are seeing outbreaks at other universities where students are returning to campus and are worried about what's likely to happen at Bowie State?
BREAUXWell, let me begin with reminding the listeners that at Bowie State University, we only have our first-year students on the campus. We have some students who are in the residence halls who are upper-class students. But, first and foremost, before the students return to the campus, every student was required to have a test conducted and show evidence that they tested negatively for that PCR testing. So, that's in order for them to just return to the campus. One of your earlier participants was mentioning about the daily screening. We have daily symptom monitoring for everyone, faculty, staff and students who are here on the campus, checking their temperatures. In terms of the partying that you see at some other institutions, here at the university, with Bowie, because we only have first-year students, we have a much smaller cohort.
BREAUXAnd the key is to keep our students engaged in the learning process and in their co-curricular activities. And that's what we're focused on in making sure that we instill in them as -- I think Natalia just said, and then it's on them. We are about higher education and we partner with our students with learning. And that begins here. Yes, it's very different than in the past. The pandemic is still occurring. And so that requires that we step it up, too. And encourage the students to understand what it means when they took on -- they accepted to come to the campus. So, what we're doing is changing a culture, a way of thinking across this country and on our college campuses. We start with safety and what that means and the impact that this virus can have to them. And we're seeing the numbers increasing, as more testing is done, that this population is at risk.
BREAUXIt's not as great of a risk as the older population and some of the other populations, the African American population. But nonetheless, we start with safety first. The virus is here. And here's what this means for you, symptom monitoring, testing, tracing. And making sure that the students understand and embrace that they are part of keeping our campus safe. And if it doesn't work out, yes, our campuses are prepared to go back to a fully virtual environment. And knowing that, our students are embracing wearing a mask and practicing these safety protocols. And it comes back individual responsibility. But we are prepared, if we see those spikes, if we see a substantial change, to revert back to the fully virtual environment.
BREAUXAnd I think the issues that we're facing have to do with the messages, or perhaps some mixed messages, that everyone has received with regard how they can impact on the virus. We know, science, tells us--
NNAMDIOkay, we have less than a minute left. We have less than a minute left, but go ahead.
BREAUXIf you wear a mask -- but this is important. It's very basic. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. And if we can get the students to understand that -- and I believe we are making great headway, here -- it makes a difference, and everyone has responsibility in keeping the campus safe.
NNAMDIDr. Aminta Breaux is the President of Bowie State University. Debbie Truong is WAMU's Education Reporter. And Kayla Hewitt is a Senior studying at Georgetown University. Thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, how are local musicians using their craft amidst a global pandemic and nationwide protests? We'll check in with two local artists. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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