The AUC’s decision to go virtual for this semester’s students and faculty may have been the right decision to make as several schools are closing down due to students and faculty getting infected with COVID-19.

“Well, it started with my Dad waking me up saying, ‘I’m your new roommate for the next semester.’ That was an experience.”

And that was how first semester Spelman student, Christine Bynum, was told the news that her college experience would be starting at her home in Portland, Oregon instead of at the Atlanta University Center.

In July, the presidents of the AUC consortium — including Morehouse College, Spelman College, and Clark Atlanta University — made the decision to adopt virtual learning in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“So the beauty of it was a holistic decision,” said CAU President, George French. “We found that 97 percent of our students will be coming from the top hotspots in the country. Once we have had the data, we knew that we had to make a decision.”

Last week, several institutions, including Georgia Tech, reported dozens of cases of Coronavirus in students and faculty days after starting classes in person.

“I just see it as a blessing in disguise,” said Morehouse freshmen basketball player, Brock Davis. “I feel like I was able to focus on my school work and keep making those good grades and keep making my family proud.”

MaKisha Funderburke, an adjunct professor at CAU, approved of the decisions made by the Presidents and was ready to welcome her students through her laptop instead of in her classroom.

“I was actually relieved that the AUC institutions made their decision because that shows you that they are keeping the student’s health and their best interests at heart,” Funderburke said. “So when they decided to go 100 percent remote, I was relieved, but I think it was a good decision.”

With housing off the table for generating revenue this semester, all of the schools will suffer major financial losses. The institutions are estimated to lose a combined $20 million from on-campus living and enrollment. 

French said he looked at options to have the freshmen and sophomore classes stay on campus like have one student per dorm room and administering test kits to take before moving day to confirm negative cases.

Enrollment was another factor that was involved when making this decision. All of the presidents braced themselves for a loss of 25 percent or more in enrollment for the fall. French said he is anticipating it to be less than 20 percent and Morehouse President David Thomas, projecting less.

“Actually, we’re almost exactly where we were this time last year,” Thomas said. “I think we’re 5 percent down.”

The CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund provided funds for the schools and emergency financial aid to help students whose lives had been disrupted by closing the schools last semester.

“We were able to benefit with over $3 million directly to students who needed emergency aid,” French said. “(W)e had to send students home, we purchased airline tickets, purchased groceries, paid bills that they had neither, and then there were several million dollars that we received as institutional support for that loss in revenue.

“So colleges and universities are still realizing a loss and will realize a loss, but there’s been some great relief from the Fed,” he added.

But for French, Thomas, and the rest of the AUC Presidents, having your entire curriculum virtually for the entire semester was going to be a big change.

“To increase our ability to make sure that even in the virtual environment, we provide our students with a high quality, educational experience and so our faculty are feeling much more confident,” Thomas said.

Clark Atlanta gifted its undergrad and graduate students 4,000 laptop computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to continue their education while away from campus. Faculty members were also required to complete an online certification program to ensure they are giving students the best education possible.

Funderburke said she caught on fast when she learned the new learning management system back in March after the AUC initially canceled classes due to the city’s executive order of limiting gatherings of 100 people or more.

“I’m adapting fairly well,” Funderburke said. “It’s been very peaceful because the spring semester in March, we went virtual. So I’m use to it.”

For Bynum and other students participating in classes on the West Coast or in other countries, the time differences have created an adjustment she was not ready for.

“People say, ‘don’t take 8 a.m. classes especially if you are three hours behind,” Bynum said.

So she started a morning routine to ensure she is awake in time for her 6 a.m. math class by making a Starbucks run with her mom at 5 a.m. PST.

With the number of cases starting to subside, the presidents said they have started considering what they are going to do for the spring semester in 2021. The consortium has started weekly meetings to figure out a way to safely bring the students back to the AUC. 

“We’ve already developed what I think is a state-of-the-art set of protocols to bring our students back,” Thomas explained. “We have already begun using those with faculty and staff who need to come to campus.”

French, who is also a member of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s COVID-19 committee to reopen Atlanta, said he will continue to use data to help him make decisions. “If parents see Atlanta being responsible, they’re more apt to allow their students and their children to come back to school at Clark Atlanta University and the AU Center.”

French said the AUC presidents will make the decision on continuing virtual learning into the spring semester starting the second week of September and Thomas said he will make an announcement to Morehouse students and parents after Thanksgiving. 

(Courtesy of Clark Atlanta University)

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