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RECAP: Howard University Responds to COVID-19 Outbreak

By Yasha Washington, Staff Reporter


President Frederick in conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Keith Alexander. Photo Courtesy of the Howard University Newsroom.

The Howard University Department of Public Safety released a public health alert regarding the coronavirus on Jan. 24, 2020, informing the campus of the then fairly new respiratory disease originating from Wuhan, Hubei province of China. It had been four days since the first U.S. case of the coronavirus was reported and there were, at the time, no known cases in the Washington, D.C. area or on Howard University’s campus, and less than five confirmed cases in the entire U.S. It was the university’s first coronavirus-related announcement. 

Since then, there has been an evident and incredible escalation in the coronavirus outbreak, both on a global scale and as it pertains specifically to Howard University. On March 11 a university-wide transition to online classes and remote instruction was announced. The transition was originally scheduled to implement directly following spring break on March 23 and last until April 6, with a status update provided to the campus community on March 25. However, as guidance and regulations regularly alter as the situation with the pandemic itself frequently mutates, schools and organizations everywhere are forced to make great adjustments at an exceedingly rapid pace. 

“Several factors impacted this decision,” explained Provost and Chief Academic Officer Anthony K. Wutoh. “In late January, we issued a travel warning to China, in concert with the CDC, and also indicated that we would prohibit student travel to China. In February, we convened a University Coronavirus (COVID-19) taskforce to assess the growing epidemic, and the potential impact on the University. We were also participating in meetings with the other Universities in the Consortium regarding planning, and coordinating a response to various issues.”

On March 10 American University announced plans to transition to online classes directly after spring break and to resume on-campus instruction on April 6. The following day, the University of Maryland published a similar statement, with online instruction to begin the week following spring break and on-campus instruction to resume on April 10. Both universities have suspended on-campus instruction for the remainder of the academic year.

“Unfortunately, by March 16, 2020, a guest at the Charter Day Dinner had tested positive for Coronavirus, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and the Federal Government issued new guidance discouraging any travel of U.S. citizens abroad,” said Wutoh. “Additionally, Mayor Bowser declared both a state of emergency and a public health emergency and D.C. Department of Health recommended the canceling of large non-essential gatherings. At that point, President Frederick informed the University Community that online and remote instruction would be maintained for the duration of the Spring 2020 semester.”

On March 16, President Wayne A.I. Frederick released a letter announcing the suspension of on-campus instruction for the remainder of the semester, the closing of residence halls until further notice and the cancellation of all class reunions and commencement. These decisions were influenced by both the recent confirmation of a case at the annual Charter Day Dinner on March 7,  and a new CDC guidance warning against gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks.

On March 18, during a WHUT special broadcast titled “Howard Responds to COVID-19,” President Frederick discussed the decisions to suspend on-campus instruction and close all residence halls.

“I recognize that Howard University is a very safe place for a lot of students and we try to obviously uphold that,” Frederick told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Howard alumnus Keith Alexander. “But it was not going to continue to be a safe place given everything else that was taking place.

Frederick went on to address the cancellation of on-campus commencement, citing that decision “of all the decisions” that administration was faced with to be “very, very difficult.”

“Commencement as well is a very, very treasured I would say tradition here at Howard,” said Frederick. “I myself have three degrees. I’ve presided over many a commencement, and I know how important it is for students who come to this university, have gone through all the trials and tribulations of a rigorous academic environment, and they and their families deserve to celebrate that.”

In a letter to the university on March 23, Provost Wutoh shared that new plans for commencement would be later announced, based upon input from students, faculty and medical experts. 

During these hectic times, the university is taking measures to support students through the remainder of the academic year. On March 27, Wutoh officially announced the implementation of Pass/Fail grades for all undergraduate spring 2020 semester courses, unless a student otherwise opts to still receive a letter grade for a course. Prorated refunds for room and board and multiple other fees are to be administered to students at the end of the month. 

“This is an unprecedented health crisis that requires each of us to do our part to slow or decrease transmission, and protect each other,” said Wutoh. “We are each being impacted by this crisis, and we understand the tremendous impact it has had on our students.”

Students’ mental health and wellbeing is also being taken into great consideration. Additional university counselors have been hired and can be reached via phone at 202-806-6870 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST. “Healthiest You,” a telehealth mental health provider can also be reached either online at telehealth4students.com or via phone at 855-870-5858. Optum, a health services company part of UnitedHealth Group, has introduced its 24-hour Emotional Support Help Line, available seven days a week at 866-342-6892. Howard students are encouraged to take advantage of these services as they need.

“However, we are Howard University, and we will navigate this most recent challenge together!” continued Wutoh. “We will continue to look for ways to assist our students, and exemplify our motto of Truth and Service, even in this global emergency.