Faculty union blasts SUNY virus testing

Greg Klein | The Daily Star SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Morris speaks Sunday, Aug. 30, at a media conference on the campus announcing the two-week shutdown of in-person classes at SUNY Oneonta. SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras stands behind her.

ALBANY — The leader of the union representing faculty members at all 64 State University campuses urged the Cuomo administration before the colleges reopened to ensure all students receive baseline testing for the coronavirus.

That idea was never embraced by the SUNY administration, however.

Now, according to officials at SUNY Oneonta, testing in recent days at the campus has found that 177 students are infected with the virus. About 2,000 students were tested, putting the infection rate at about 9%.

“What has happened now is SUNY is chasing the wave,” said Fred Kowal, president of United University Professionals, the faculty union.

“If baseline testing had been done, we would have been ahead of the game,” Kowal added.

A SUNY spokeswoman, asked why the university administration did not require baseline testing of all students returning to campuses for the fall semester, referred a reporter to press releases from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. Those documents did not address the issue.

Kowal said he has been in regular discussion with James Malatras, the new SUNY chancellor, about a new plan to begin regular “pool testing” — collecting samples from multiple people and testing them as a group for the virus — at the campuses.

Kowal said while he would still prefer to see baseline testing of all students, he is pleased Malatras is “aggressively and forcefully pushing campuses to do widespread surveillance testing, which can work to stop an outbreak.” Kowal said the UUP also wants a mandatory mask-wearing policy at all SUNY buildings, except when individuals are alone.

Cuomo discussed the Oneonta crisis in a conference call with reporters Monday.

“I don’t have any plans to go to Oneonta specifically, but I think Oneonta got the message loud and clear when the chancellor closed the school to go back to remote learning,” the governor said of the decision to shut the campus for 14 days and have students staying in dormitories shelter in place.

“That message in Oneonta has resonated across the country,” he added. “And I hope it resonates across the state. And I hope private colleges heed the message.”

He said he expects more outbreaks at colleges, pointing to the challenges involved in housing young adults at campuses.

“I’ve spoken to a number of private school administrations. And they said, ‘But you know, the students want to have parties, the students want to socialize.’I understand that. I get it. But the flip side is what happened at Oneonta. And I think you’re going to see more of what you’ve seen. Twenty-five colleges across the country have run into the same problem.”

Only three SUNY campuses opted to embrace baseline testing of all students before the semester began — Stony Brook, Albany and Geneseo.

In a letter to the Oneonta campus community Monday, the college’s president, Barbara Jean Morris, said in the wake of the outbreak, more than 2,000 campus residents have been tested, with just 187 additional students still needed to be checked.

In late July, at a legislative hearing on campuses reopening during the pandemic, Robert Megna, SUNY’s senior vice chancellor, said all 64 campuses were required to submit reopening plans and all of them were approved by the system’s top administrators.

“SUNY was given the responsibility for evaluating those plans by the Department of Health, and we have certified that all 64 of our campuses meet the guidelines,” Megna explained.

Kowal said he hopes all campus leaders now adopt a mandatory mask rule. He is also urging the Cuomo administration to extend a telecommuting agreement with the union as a way to reduce the density of people on the campuses. The agreement expires Oct. 2.

Kowal noted that with many public schools shifting to distance learning, the children of faculty members are being educated from their homes, at a time when child care options are in short supply.

At an online rally addressing the safety and health concerns of UUP members last month, Rebecca Bryan, a professor at SUNY Cortland, voiced disappointment at the lack of a virus testing requirement for returning students

“Cortland has a five-question daily screening tool, but no baseline testing, no surveillance testing, no testing at all, and yet it is approved by SUNY,” Bryan said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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