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Temple University’s COVID outbreak left North Philadelphia’s Black community ill-equipped and uninformed

September 24, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
On a recent trip to New England, somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard, Dr. Ala Stanford of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium learned about local university protocols for bringing students back to campus during the ongoing pandemic.

Northeastern, Boston College, and schools in New Hampshire expelled those who didn’t follow the rules, she told Generocity, because residents didn’t want students from across the globe bringing coronavirus into their communities.

Dr. Stanford, who founded the Consortium to alleviate COVID testing disparities in African American communities, had an altogether different experience when the group came to Temple University’s campus a few weeks ago.

"These kids are out here playing like we’re not in a pandemic."
Dr. Ala Stanford

Amid a localized outbreak that reached at least 300 students by the second week of the semester, she watched a pickup game of basketball complete with heavy breathing, sweating, and a lack of social distancing.

“Them mugs weren’t wearing masks,” she said. “These kids are out here playing like we’re not in a pandemic.”

According to Dr. Stanford, basketball wasn’t the only leisure-time activity to go against the safety measures Temple implemented — a system dubbed the “four pillars” by the University and which includes facial coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and health monitoring.

As she recalled from her time on campus, neighborhood residents told Dr. Stanford that they made calls to local and campus police about parties with upwards of 80 students, all of whom were not wearing masks.“Everybody knew those kids were having parties,” Dr. Stanford said.

After a moment, she followed up with a qualifier, noting that the students were not primarily African American. “They were primarily white,” Dr. Stanford said. “In fact, of those kids, we tested over the two days like 80 percent were white.”

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It’s an important distinction, especially in a gentrifying area with a transient student population.

COVID-19 continues to ravage Black Philadelphians and the majority neighborhoods they live in, more than any other city population. For that reason, some residents feel that Temple University’s decision to open up the campus to a portion of its 40,000-strong global population put the neighboring community at risk, despite assurances from city health officials.

By the second week of the semester, Temple had a full-on outbreak with over 300 recorded cases and upwards of 500 potential cases noted by contact tracers. A two-week moratorium on in-person classes stretched to virtual schooling for the entire term.

Dr. Stanford and her team rushed to campus, canceling a much-needed visit to a church in Darby scheduled by Rep. Mary Kay Scanlon.

“We had to go because these kids — and let’s just call it what it is — were irresponsible and they were irresponsible without any repercussions,” she said.

Dr. Stanford was adamant that the Consortium test not only students, but any resident of North Philadelphia who needed it during the trip to Temple. (Her team has since returned to the church in Darby.)

But for Dr. Stanford, there’s still a dichotomy between the universities she learned about in New England and what she saw at Temple University. In the Northeast, schools were determined to keep COVID-19 rates low, she said, and they protected local communities.

“There was no plan and bringing 15,000 kids on that campus and keeping the community safe and no one thought about it,” she said. “No one thought — there was no forethought. Because to me, you don’t place a value on this particular community that Temple resides and if you did it would have been evidenced by your action, and it wasn’t.”

Finding empathy in a statistical hotbed

While much of the focus of COVID-19 surrounds the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, Black Philadelphians are the group statistically most likely to contract the virus.

Statistics from the Department of Public Health show that Black residents comprise over 40% of all coronavirus cases in the city, over 50% of all hospitalizations, and almost 50% of all deaths since the pandemic began to spread last spring. Notwithstanding higher rates of exposure, Philadelphia’s Black population accounts for only 30% of all COVID-19 tests, although total numbers include 40% for whom information on race was unknown.

Area demographics show that the North Philadelphia neighborhoods surrounding Temple University and its recent hotbed of COVID activity are majority African American too. Eighty percent of residents in the neighboring 19121 zip code are Black, as are 33 percent of the people living in 19122, which is home to the University’s main campus. Although campus expansion, growing enrollments, and gentrification continue to keep the latter number low, it still constitutes the lion’s share of the area’s Black residents.

As Temple University Associate Professor Dr. Devon Powers reminded Generocity, these are vibrant and unique communities that are often dismissed at large. As she noted, North Philadelphia is home to businesses, landlords, generational families, and gentrifying newcomers.

“There’s a lot of different components to that neighborhood,” said Powers, who teaches at the Klien College of Media and Communication. “I think people sometimes use ‘the neighborhood’ as shorthand to talk about the Black people that live in the neighborhood who are not students.”

The dismissal of Black communities writ large is a contributing factor as to why COVID-19 continues to have such a devastating effect across the racial divide. Dr. Stanford made clear that the elephant in the room regarding not only the coronavirus but also healthcare, in general, is systemic racism and injustice, which precludes African Americans from taking the tests necessary to identify and quell the virus.

The dismissal of Black communities writ large is a contributing factor as to why COVID-19 continues to have such a devastating effect across the racial divide.

Part of the problem is advocacy. As Dr. Stanford explained, it’s easy for healthcare professionals to blame their patients for high blood pressure, obesity, and poor nutrition. Still, it takes effort to dig into the decisions that led to those outcomes. Doctors, she said, should advocate for their patients and ask how they can help, not make accusations of wrongdoing.

But a more significant issue is the healthcare system itself, which is geared towards the needs of white men and not designed for an underserved population. As the pandemic showed, mask wearing, keeping socially distant, and staying at home requires a certain level of privilege.

“Not everybody can say in the midst of a pandemic without having have money saved up or allocated towards that ‘I’m just going to go buy another freezer and put it in and just buy food for a month’ and then just stay at home and not get paid,” Dr. Stanford said. “[The rules] weren’t for everyone and then who is supposed to watch your kids?”

Lack of empathy for vulnerable and underserved populations was a contributing factor, too, creating a perfect storm that’s still helping the virus spread through this day. An African American mental health professional who lives and works in North Philadelphia and spoke on the condition of anonymity told Generocity that local and federal health officials all but ignored the living conditions in low-income Black communities.

“People in North Philadelphia especially cannot social distance because they live in overcrowded spaces,” they said. “I mean that’s always been like that.”

What has changed is the household dynamic. While large and multi-family domiciles continue to dot the neighborhood, more contemporary forms of transitional living, or what this mental health professional calls a modern way of homelessness, now occurs. According to them, a not insignificant number of people coming from abusive or broken family situations or struggling with mental health and substance use disorders come together to find shelter wherever they can, a basic need that outweighs the requirement for social distancing.

“You have to find some place else to live,” they said. “So these people house surf, they couch surf.”

What concerned this mental health professional the most was media portrayals of Black communities during the pandemic. Highlighting the point, they contrasted media reports where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claimed Philadelphia had the highest mask compliance of any city in the country with local news stories about block parties in North Philly.

“I read that somewhere and then I thought that this was just another attempt for them to smear young black people,” they said.

A bunch of bumbling people

Earlier this year, Temple instituted what the University dubbed a “phased” plan for returning to on-campus operations while taking into account ever-changing health and governmental official parameters for the novel coronavirus.

Temple, pre COVID-19.

Public documents show they intended to increase the on-campus presence of students, faculty, and staff between May 1 and August 24 on staggered dates, with August 1 dedicated to the “first stages of students returning to off-campus housing and repopulating surrounding neighborhoods.”

Other reports explain the University’s plan to open campus to a reduced student population in the fall. At the center of it all was the creation of a Return Team, which was to monitor the safety of academics, operations, student life, and more, and the aforementioned “four pillars” of public health, which every member of the Temple community was expected to follow.

According to University officials, reopening plans also included efforts to keep residents of surrounding neighborhoods informed. “Our conduit into North Philadelphia is the North Central Special Services District,” said Temple University spokesperson Ray Betzner.

The North Central Special Services District encompasses Broad Street to 18th and Dauphin Street to Oxford. Like the University City District near Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania that it’s modeled after, the new district came into being last year to maintain the upkeep and care of, and act as a liaison between Temple and the surrounding area. Half of the board are officers from Temple, leading some in North Philly to argue it’s nothing more than an arm of the University.

“It’s a propped-up board of people they just went and grabbed [who] they know will not protest … [and] are just happy to be on some board or on some made-up something with Temple,” said Judith Robinson, chairperson for the 32nd Democratic Ward Registered Community Organization. Robinson, a North Philly resident who works in real estate, is a community leader and in that role, she convenes with developers and educates locals on the changing face of the neighborhood.

“None of those people have a background in what that Special Services District was supposed to be about — which was to alleviate some of the trash and debris on our streets,” she added.

Contrary to what Betzner told Generocity, Robinson painted a picture of a vulnerable North Philadelphia community left in the dark over Temple’s plans to reopen campus for the fall term.

A self-described supporter who enjoys making use of Temple’s library collection during non-pandemic times, Robinson said she wants to see the University succeed. But she often finds their communication with the neighborhood “tone deaf.”

Robinson said that the RCO process allows hers and other organizations to be listed as public entities, meaning that, if nothing else, Temple could have sent out an email explaining that the University would bring back students in the fall. As the grandmother of a Howard University student taking online courses this semester, she assumed that all universities would follow suit.

“We were a little caught off guard at why would Temple bring students back to campus,” Robinson said. “Everybody else is doing something different.”

"Regardless of what decisions the University would have made the potential for there still being Temple University students living off campus has always been there."
Ray Betzner

Regardless of the decision to reopen the main campus this fall, off-campus housing obligations may have meant an influx of students in the 19122 zip code no matter what. Betzner noted that a significant number of students make decisions to live off-campus around the Christmas season for the following year, signing leasing commitments in January and February.

“The fact of the matter is, regardless of what decisions the University would have made the potential for there still being Temple University students living off campus has always been there,” said Betzner, who explained that Temple would have had to implement health and safety campaigns for COVID whether 25% of students were on campus, or 5% were.

Robinson stressed that she does like Temple and that generally, she does have a decent relationship with the school’s community relations. But sometimes, she said, she feels like decisions are being made elsewhere.

“It’s sort of like a bunch of bumbling people,” she sad.

Balancing the needs of students and seniors

Temple University’s decision to open campus this fall, during a pandemic that had already closed several schools in the city, was done over protests of faculty and part of the student body. As Powers explained in a powerful op-ed she wrote for the Inquirer earlier this year; the faculty was torn between their desire to be in the classroom and their need to be safe.

“Everything evolved with the pandemic,” said Powers, noting that, at first, none of the faculty wanted to teach online. “Later on, no one wanted to be in the classroom,” she continued.

The return to on-campus life went beyond fears of contracting COVID and spoke to changing student and teacher dynamics. Dr. Powers noted both in her op-ed and in conversation that the faculty had a new responsibility to monitor public health in the classroom, from social distancing to mask-wearing and more. How much was too much, she wondered, and how little wasn’t enough?

“It’s hard enough when there’s 40 students in a classroom and they pull out their cell phones and go on Instagram,” she said. “And we’ve been doing that for a decade.”

In under two weeks, COVID cases rose exponentially, from 10 to 50, then from 100 to 300. What was initially supposed to be a two-week shutdown of the campus eventually became a semester-long closure once the situation spread out-of-control.

University officials state the spread of COVID on campus came from small social gatherings of no more than seven or eight people. According to Betzner, contract tracing showed that students were most likely to contract the virus when grabbing a pizza and a beer and watching the ball game. “One of the houses maybe that has several people in it has invited a couple of other people over, those other people, one of them may be infected, they spread it to other students in that house,” he said. “That appears to be how the infection most likely took place.”

Black communities vulnerable to the coronavirus are no stranger to the off-campus party culture that surrounds Temple. Rev. William Moore of the Tenth Memorial Baptist Church walks a fine line trying to keep the peace between students and his parishioners that live in the neighborhood.

As he told Generocity, he’s seen the region go from a vital area to one rife with new developers and gentrification.

“It is always challenging trying to be welcoming but also trying to balance between students who like to party,” said Rev. Moore, who did not mention particular parties that occurred during the fall term. “That does not always complement long-term residents and particularly seniors.”

"It is always challenging trying to be welcoming but also trying to balance between students who like to party."
Rev. William Moore

Rev. Moore continues to be proactive in protecting his congregation throughout the pandemic. While a few of his parishioners contracted the virus, the church remained closed. Earlier this year, he joined with several other local pastors in rejecting President Trump’s call to open churches.

He hasn’t had anyone from Temple University contact him to discuss the events of the current fall semester — either the decision to open or the outbreak that followed. Neither were his parishioners contacted, he said, and a number of them live beside students. It’s a concern as, he said, students flaunted pandemic guidelines by refusing to wear masks and stay socially distant.

“I did reach out to them, a number of the active people in the community, and they did indicate that no one had really talked with them and come up with a plan that was compatible to the community to show that we could coexist together, he said.

Betzner said that the University has made no decision for the spring as of yet, but what happened this fall will inform how they proceed. And city officials report that there’s no evidence the outbreak spread to the greater North Philadelphia neighborhood.

“But how many of those people did you really test to come to that conclusion?” asked Dr. Stanford, preceded by an expletive. “They can’t answer that.”

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