Pandemic takes toll on N.Y.'s private colleges  

Robert Cairns | The Daily StarA sign on the Hartwick College campus is shown from West Street in Oneonta on Wednesday.

ALBANY — The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on the financial health of New York's more than 100 private colleges, with enrollments shrinking and new costs from equipping campuses with testing and personal protection equipment.

A survey of college administrators by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York found that dealing with the impacts of the contagion will cost those institutions $1 billion, Mary Beth Labate, the commission's president, told CNHI.

"The sad reality is that costs abound responding to this virus," Labate said. "At the same time, you also have a lot of fundraising that goes into providing financial aid to students, and the need for financial aid has never been greater."

Labate said while it's clear that virus concerns have pushed down enrollments at many of the campuses, it is too early to put a precise estimate on the full decline until data is collected from the campuses in October.

One factor in the enrollment drop is that there are now far fewer international students at the New York campuses, she noted. ii

Restrictions imposed by the federal government bar foreign nationals from China, Iran, Europe's Schengen Area, the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland and Brazil from entering the U.S., unless they hold green cards.

If there is an upside to having fewer students on campuses, it is that dormitories have fewer residents.

"Those dormitories are now more de-densified than they ever have been," Labate said.

Preparing for the fall semester, campus administrators worked to ensure more students would be in single rooms, with far less reliance on grouping students in suites housing three or four occupants, she said.

They also put in place various combinations of testing protocols, with most requiring that students be tested before returning for the fall semester, including Hartwick College in Oneonta. Niagara University and many of the other colleges are providing pool testing of asymptomatic individuals on the campuses.

Several schools, including Hamilton College in Clinton, Clarkson University in Potsdam and the Rochester Institute of Technology are trying to determine if there are genetic traces of the virus in wastewater flushed from the bathrooms used by students. The goal is to respond immediately with greater individual testing if the wastewater includes the virus.

Labate said the cautious approaches to reopening appear to have greatly reduced the risk of outbreaks so far.

Campus leaders have urged students to abide by mask-wearing and social-distancing mandates. At Syracuse University, the largest private college in the upstate region, 23 students were suspended on Aug. 22 after a large social gathering at the campus.

In a letter to the campus community, Syracuse Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie implored the students not to jeopardize in-person classes with their behavior.

"We have one shot to make this happen," Haynie wrote.“The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong.”

So far, the private colleges have not had to deal with the kind of crisis that has beset one upstate public college campus, the State University at Oneonta.

As of Wednesday evening, a total of 334 persons at Oneonta tested positive for the coronavirus, including 107 new cases reported that day. As with most campuses in the SUNY system, the Oneonta reopening plan approved by SUNY administrators in Albany did not include a requirement that students be tested prior to returning to classes.

Cornell University, an Ivy League college in Ithaca, found itself this week coping with a cluster of 21 students who have tested positive for the virus.

Cornell signaled last month that it will be conducting pool testing on campus, using the new Cornell Coronavirus Testing Laboratory, which was constructed in just seven weeks. It is expected to be the linchpin in a surveillance testing program that began on campus this week.

As many as 7,000 tests will be conducted each day on students, faculty and employees. After a courier delivers samples, a lab robot will use pipettes on the liquid to produce pools of five. Pools that contain the virus would glow.

"A lot of our schools took it upon themselves to really ramped up their ability to do testing," Labate said.

The colleges are bearing the cost of the testing on their campuses, as well as the expense from purchases of protection equipment, without federal assistance, Labate noted.

"The revenue losses have been pretty staggering," she added. However, the campuses have shown resilience when faced with other challenges over the decades, she added.

"This is absolutely a challenge, but it is one that we planned for," she said. "We have been educating our students, their families, the R.A.s (resident hall assistants). We went into this as prepared as we possibly could. I do think, at least in this early period, the months and months of preparatory work we did are showing signs of paying off."

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

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