Commentary: Helping Historic Black Colleges and Universities return to school safely

By Donald Trigg

The issue of returning to school has been an important area of discussion as the fall semester commences. This national conversation brings together a constellation of critical issues around public health, educational development and the long-term wellbeing of our students.

Donald Trigg

This country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) are a vital part of our national talent infrastructure. Our 101 HBCUs are responsible for 23% of all Black college graduates, 60% of Black engineers and 70% of Black doctors. Notably, they also have just one-eighth of the endowment of their non-HBCU counterparts. Returning to school is a pressing issue for many of these essential institutions.

Cerner Corp. recently announced a commitment to be a national technology partner for a safe return-to-school effort led by the nonprofit Testing for America, with the partnership of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund. The strategic initiative aims to support HBCUs in their COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff to help safely reopen campuses.

The launch point for the HBCU initiative is Delaware State University in Dover. This top-20 HBCU has been an early collaborator with nonprofit Testing for America and is committed to safely delivering a comprehensive testing approach for 3,000 students, faculty and staff. Cerner has provided interoperability services and online tools that connect Testing for America’s laboratory partners to Delaware State’s student health center. We also are digitally connecting the campus with local, state and federal public health infrastructure. Cerner has committed to deploy its technology nationally as additional HBCUs come online with the testing program.

This important work continues a long tradition of engagement for impact at times of crisis. Following the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax threat, Cerner launched a bioterrorism early-warning system called Health Sentry. We also led a national juvenile diabetes initiative where Cerner pledged to provide a no-cost online diabetes management tool to every child in the U.S. with Type 1 diabetes. During the H1N1 crisis, we created a national, rapid-detection network leveraged by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Finally, during the current COVID-19 crisis, Cerner created a resurgence-risk index to help our clients predict and better manage COVID-19 volumes within the communities they serve.

The challenges that our provider organizations and public health leaders have faced in the last several months have been unprecedented. They have pushed to activate their digital infrastructure to provide surge capacity. They have mobilized for key recovery strategies as prevalence curves have flattened. They have sought, amid those challenges, to rethink how the health economy needs to operate “after COVID-19.”

As the new semester begins, schools are now rising to a similar set of challenges. Testing for America, in partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the United Negro College Fund, have created an opportunity for corporate leadership. Cerner is fortunate to play an important role in that effort.

As we mourned the loss of the late John Lewis in recent weeks, his words about the opportunities for impact amid challenge ring true: “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.” Our HBCUs are a critical national infrastructure. The push to safely return students, faculty and staff must be a collective call to action.

Donald Trigg is the president of the global health care technology company Cerner Corp.