Representative image. (Image: AP)
When the upstate New York campus that had the worst coronavirus outbreak of any public college in the state announced it would reopen for the spring semester, a petition started in protest and accumulated more than 700 signatures.
“Learn from your Fall 2020 mistakes!” wrote an alumna who signed the petition.
“I am tired of feeling like this school just consumes me continually. I cannot wait to retire,” wrote one anonymous faculty member.
“Because of your actions this past year, I haven’t been able to see my only child for a year,” another anonymous poster wrote. “I am going through chemo alone because she works in an unsafe environment and cannot risk killing me.”
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Monday, for the first time since August, the school, the State University of New York at Oneonta, will host in-person classes, after weeks of backlash from some students, parents and faculty members who felt there had not been enough consensus about the reopening plan.
The tensions at Oneonta underscore the challenges that colleges nationwide have experienced over reopening campuses during a pandemic and how quickly trust can erode when things go wrong.
The controversy at Oneonta has capped a half-year of tumult: The college was forced to shut down just weeks after the fall semester began, after about 400 students tested positive for the virus. Images of students being led out of dorm rooms by health care workers in hazmat suits in the middle of the night, and of partying in isolation dorms, spread online. The outbreak eventually led to the resignation of the school’s president.
As of January, more than 760 students and staff members had tested positive, according to the college’s COVID-19 dashboard. In recent weeks, as students returned to campus, 18 employees and students tested positive, the school said. More than 20 students are in quarantine on campus; the student body totals more than 6,000.
In the fall, the school had planned to hold 7% of classes in person, but even those lessons were quickly moved online. Now, for the spring semester, it is aiming for about 20%.
“They want to reopen the campus come hell or high water,” said Keith Schillo, a biology professor who helped organize the petition.
The school said its new plan — which was supported by Oneonta town officials and includes regular testing, limits on dorm capacity and penalties for noncompliance — reflected the lessons it learned last year.
“There’s going to be a lot of attention on Oneonta,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, a union that represents SUNY workers.
Before the fall semester, many teachers and students were puzzled as to why the school did not require a negative virus test before they were allowed on campus. SUNY did not mandate negative tests, but many schools in the college system did ask students for test results.
It did not come as a surprise to some when the Oneonta outbreak began. First, just two cases were reported in two days in August. Then, in a matter of weeks, hundreds of students were infected. School officials blamed much of the spread on student parties.
The outbreak was out of control by the time SUNY officials shut down the campus.
In October, the school’s president, Dr. Barbara Morris, resigned, though state officials stopped short of connecting her departure with the outbreak. Jim Malatras, the SUNY chancellor, appointed Dennis Craig, who had guided a successful reopening plan at SUNY Purchase, as interim president that fall.
Craig communicated with Oneonta students and parents by posting regular video updates and surveying students on their opinions. Craig said in an interview that he had heard stories from students that reflected a “craving of coming back to some safe level of normal.”
About 43% of the college’s student body participated in a survey on their preferences for the spring semester. More than 56% of the respondents, about 1,500 students, said they preferred to study face to face, according to the survey data.
That data, which influenced the college’s plan, was heavily discussed during a virtual meeting among members of the faculty and administration Nov. 9, according to the meeting’s minutes. In that meeting, professors repeatedly expressed concerns about whether they would be “mandated” to teach classes in person to reach the school’s 20% goal.
At the meeting, one professor asked, “If I am doing my math correctly, that is 25% of student body influencing this plan?”
“Isn’t 25% a lot?” Craig responded, according to the minutes.
Soon after, faculty members started the petition.
Some faculty members also criticized the school for publishing a “retrospective” that analyzed the missteps of the fall semester Nov. 16 — the same day as a draft of the spring reopening plan. They said the timing did not allow discussion of what had happened before decisions were made about the spring, said Kristen Blinne, a communication studies professor.
The two documents were also released the day after the petition was released.
According to the spring plan, students who live, work or study on campus had to provide proof of a negative test before arriving. Students also had to complete a daily health questionnaire for the 14 days before they arrived on campus and a quarantine for seven days before arriving.
Once on campus, students must participate in weekly pooled surveillance testing.
About 650 students will live in single-occupancy dorm rooms spread out on campus. About 1,500 students registered for in-person classes, according to a SUNY statement. Spring break was canceled and replaced with four “personal wellness” days.
Consequences for breaking the rules were strengthened as well. Students “with serious COVID-19 policy violations” last semester were ineligible for on-campus housing.
“It definitely puts them in a much better position going into the new semester, especially with the reduced capacity in the dorm rooms,” said Heidi Bond, public health director of Otsego County, where Oneonta is situated.
Anthony Barone, a 21-year-old senior who supported the petition, said the fall semester severely stained the school’s reputation. The fact that so many professors felt the petition was necessary gave him pause, he said. He is spending his last semester taking online classes.
“I ideally would like to take classes on campus, but I know what’s going to happen if I do that, so it’s kind of like a Catch-22,” Barone said. “I’m not holding any hope that this is going to go off without a hit.”
Gabrielle Cecere — the student association president who sat on the school’s COVID response team, which was tasked to create the reopening plan, and provided input — said that she was confident in the plan and believed that the school would adjust if the pandemic worsened. More face-to-face classes are an improvement when it comes to students’ mental health, which is her greatest concern, she said.
“Students were first and foremost,” she said about the plan. “It was not motivated by anything other than that.”
In an interview, Craig, the interim president, stressed that the plan was a “living document” and the college was prepared to “pivot and adapt.” He noted that the petition predated the reopening plan and said it was based on “a lot of fear about having any higher level of in-person experience on campus,” although he understood people’s frustrations.
“People were rightfully concerned about the idea of doing anything that was different than basically the lockdown that was on campus after everything pivoted back to remote learning,” he said.
Craig said that communication between faculty and administrators was not confused and that he prioritized meeting with the Oneonta community, local leaders, alumni and faculty to discuss the spring.
Still, Blinne said that there was a “culture of confusion” because of mixed messages on what the spring semester would look like.
“We haven’t had enough opportunities for more voices to be included in the conversation about what comes next,” Blinne said.
(Author: Amanda Rosa
)/(c.2020 The New York Times Company)