Education News

Social Justice And COVID-19 Are Top Priorities As Prairie View A&M Resumes Classes

At Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university west of Houston, students will return to changes due to the coronavirus, while also addressing the wake of mass protests across the country in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other incidents of police violence.

Prairie View A&M University.

Thousands of college students in Greater Houston start their new fall semester this week, even as COVID-19 promises to dramatically alter college life.

At Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black university west of Houston, students will return to some additional changes on campus this year in the wake of mass protests across the country in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other incidents of police violence.

Outside of the most visible change — a new street mural that reads "Black Lives Matter" on University Boulevard — the school is opening a new center to help students connect around racial issues like police brutality that have been in the news all summer.

Dr. Timothy Sams, the vice president of student affairs, said he hopes students will see that the school is stepping up into its mission as a historically Black university to spread awareness of issues in the Black community.

"Students can expect a racial and social justice center this fall,” Sams said. “This center on campus will have a laser like focus on these kind of issues being raised in our streets today."

The purpose of the center is to bring a dialogue to those issues in a form of social science to the intellectual lives of Prairie View students, he said. Faculty members will help students engage in conversations to better prepare them to be leaders after graduating from the school.

The school has a long legacy of leaning in on issues of social justice — particularly issues that have impacted African Americans. And with Prairie View being preoccupied with handling the challenges of the pandemic, Sams said he doesn’t want the school to lose sight of the fact it has an educational obligation to respond to what is happening in Black communities today.

Part of the school’s mission is to create a safe environment for students of color to learn — and this year, professors are also struggling at the same time to create a safe environment from COVID-19.

"Every student whether they live on campus or not will perceive this fall with a great deal of caution and care,” Sams said. “This is the greatest contribution that each individual can make enabling us to be able to have a wonderful fall semester. "

In order to contain any spread of the virus, Sams said he hopes students to take full responsibility for their behavior and their engagement on campus, even as schools across the country struggle to stop gatherings on campus. Sams added that while the pandemic has led to a new and unusual way of life, students need to protect themselves by wearing face masks, adhering to social distancing rules, continuously sanitizing surfaces, and thoroughly washing hands.

If students behave responsibility and adhere to these rules, Sams said he believes Prairie View will be able to operate successfully during the fall semester.

Classes resume in person Monday. But earlier this month, the university held a summer commencement ceremony virtually. It's left some students wondering: is it too soon to hold classes in person?

Ultimately, administrators decide if professors have in-person classes or online classes. But in this instance, professors were given the opportunity to express their preference for either online or face-to-face classes.

Communications Professor Derek Blackwell is one of those instructors who decided to conduct all of his classes online, saying there are too many risks with teaching face-to-face classes during the pandemic.

Blackwell said he wants to ensure his students are in the safest environment possible to learn this semester.

"I have been learning to add more flexibility to my teaching style,” Blackwell said. “I know that students are working under unusual circumstances that are beyond their control."

Ultimately, he said, it's important to work with students and have compassion towards them in these difficult times. Many of his students are facing challenges in different aspects of their lives due to COVID-19. His students are trying their best, Blackwell said, and he wants them to know that he sympathizes with them and their families.

Houston Public Media surveyed 33 Prairie View students and found students do not all agree about reopening the school for in-person classes. More than 90% of students who responded said they feel virtual learning is safer. Some wonder whether or not students will actually follow the protocol for masks out in public both on and off campus.

There are alot of other concerns that students will be faced with this upcoming fall semester.

Jasmine Charlley is a nutrition major and minors in communications, returning for her senior year at Prairie View A&M University. She is also a Panther Advisor Leader, or PAL, a mentorship program that helps incoming freshmen and transfer students about the history of the school.

One of Charlley’s duties is to help students learn important aspects of financial aid, and teach those students how to be effective in their first year.

One of her challenges this upcoming fall semester is how she will be able to connect with her PAL students.

"(Prairie View) is known for having various organization events on campus,” Charlley said. “So my biggest worry is how are we still going to get the college experience and feeling while social distancing."

Charlley plans on keeping herself safe by practicing social distancing and being cautious about where she’s going on campus. Her decisions to attend different events on campus will be based upon whether it can enhance her learning experience and help her towards further improving her career.

She doesn’t want to put her health at risk unless it’s an opportunity to help her grow in her chosen career.

Certain incidents like the death of George Floyd have made her appreciate being around people of color even more during this time in her life. She believes going through these moments of history allows African Americans to stay rooted, and not feet alone while being at schools like Prairie View.

"This year has showed me more importance of going to an historically Black college,” Charlley said.

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