Who are the college students contracting coronavirus?

My university, Robert Morris, is about to wrap up week 4 of the fall semester. There have been no major coronavirus outbreaks to this point, and that means the plan to hold many of our classes on ground until the Thanksgiving break remains on track.

Of course, we’re offering plenty of online courses, and others are (what we call) virtual rotation, in which students attend on ground and online in equal time chunks. (All classes, regardless of how they’re currently being taught, will shift to online only in late November.)

I’m thankful for how the first four weeks have played out, but I’m also not surprised.

An InsideHigherEd.com story discussing why many HBCUs also are seeing low coronavirus numbers offered some important parallels to consider.

First, our student bodies are not inclined to look at rules and ignore them, understand conduct policies and challenge them. I’m not suggesting the students are timid; rather, I’m saying they respect the rules that have been put in place. Perhaps the most obvious example: I’m not aware of a single large party that has taken place in which many of our students have been present. I’d be confident that the leaders of HBCUs could say the same. So, if you’re looking for a lot of white kids jumping in and out of pools or strolling around town without masks, you’re wasting your time coming to Moon Township. Likewise, HBCUs aren’t the place to go in an effort to document widespread partying and a dismissive attitude toward wearing masks.

Next, our students agree that their college experience can transform their lives; for them, college is not merely some place mom and dad demand they go for four years. For our students, the college years are viewed as opportunities to move up the socioeconomic ladder. In many cases, our students will be the first in their families to earn a college degree. Therefore, you’re not going to find a lot of spoiled students walking around RMU or an HBCU.

It would be arrogant of me to suggest the lived experiences of the overwhelmingly white students on the RMU campus and the overwhelmingly black students on the HBCU campuses are similar. However, I do think there’s recognition at RMU for the terrible toll that coronavirus has taken on America’s black population; the data are rather clear. If nothing else, because the area from which RMU draws the majority of its students contains plenty of elderly people (RMU’s home county, Allegheny, as just one example, is among the oldest in the nation), there’s recognition that vulnerable parts of society must be considered before any action is undertaken during the pandemic. As a result, empathy, if that’s the best word, can be demonstrated at RMU and at the HBCUs by ensuring each student does his or her part to prevent the spread of the virus.

Lastly, the desire expressed by black students in the aforementioned IHE report to be on campus also is shared by RMU’s students. More than one-dozen students I know were so excited about returning this fall; the RMU community was something they desperately missed. Studying HERE, learning HERE, living HERE matters; and even though the students understand the need for online or virtual rotation education, their enthusiasm for being in the same classroom as their professors and fellow students is evident.

I don’t have the demographic data to prove that upper and middle class white students are the overwhelming subset of college students contracting coronavirus; however, if I were a gambling man, I’d bet some serious money they are.

I’m thankful to be surrounded by slightly more than 4,000 students who want much more out of their undergraduate experience than to become a viral sensation during a pandemic by jumping off a roof and into a pool while surrounded by dozens of other students who also aren’t wearing masks.

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