SUNY Oneonta closes campus for semester

 Robert Cairns | The Daily StarSUNY Oneonta President Barbara Morris speaks to members of the media Thursday on the Oneonta campus as SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras looks at his notes.

ALBANY — The rapid spread of novel coronavirus at SUNY Oneonta, forcing the shutdown of in-person classes for the rest of the semester, has raised the anxiety of professors and other staffers at the public university's 64-campus system, a labor leader said Thursday.

"With the news out of Oneonta, the level of anxiety is heightened, especially among our professional ranks," Fred Kowal, president of United University Professionals, the SUNY faculty union, told CNHI. "The people who work in student services are very concerned, and I would use the word 'frightened.'"

Kowal spoke after SUNY administrators in Albany decided to close the Oneonta campus for the remainder of the fall semester. The abrupt decision came after 389 Oneonta students tested positive over the past week for the virus.

SUNY Oneonta reported another 118 positive tests Thursday, bringing the total to 507 cases on campus.

Kowal said UUP supports the decision in light of the crisis that snowballed over the past few days, with scores of students in isolation after being infected. There have so far been no reports of any infected student requiring hospital treatment.

"We want to make sure the entire community is kept healthy and safe," said Kowal, a professor at SUNY Cobleskill. "This was the right call to make."

Oneonta is the first New York campus to reverse course this fall on its reopening plan. It began the semester last week offering a mix of online and in-person classes and reopening dormitories that had been closed since last March.

Kowal said his union is awaiting guidance on how laboratory classes, usually requiring the physical presence of students and their instructors, will be handled.

Noting he could only speak to the segment of the Oneonta campus workforce represented by UUP, Kowal said he expects there will be no layoffs of professors and other staffers in the bargaining unit.

The UUP had urged SUNY's top administrators over the summer to insist that all campuses mandate that students be tested for the virus as soon as they returned to campuses.

Just three out of SUNY's campuses embraced that proposal: Stony Brook, Albany and Geneseo.

"We regret the fact that SUNY, months ago, did not implement a requirement to test all students upon arrival," Kowal said.

SUNY officials have linked the outbreak at Oneonta to student parties and "breaking safety protocols."

They have not responded to requests from CNHI to explain why a baseline testing requirement was left out of reopening plans. Such a mandate would have been costly, since the SUNY system has about 400,000 students statewide.

SUNY officials are requiring the Oneonta students who have tested positive for the virus to remain where they are until they are cleared to leave by the Otsego County Health Department. Those who tested have been asked to leave the campus by Monday.

The campus administration is offering the students refunds for their dining plan and dormitory payments.

Kowal said he has thus far received no reports of faculty members or other staffers being infected.

As for the impact of the campus closure on the Oneonta regional economy, Kowal suggested that state officials take into account the financial hardships that will be suffered by the community as they make decisions as to how state aid is allocated.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled the absence of a major infusion of cash from the federal government could force 20% cuts in state support to local governments.

Meanwhile, with many public schools slated to begin classes in the coming week, the Cuomo administration is now requiring the school districts to furnish the state Health Department with data each day on the results of their virus testing.

The data will also be available to the public through a dashboard to be hosted on each district's web site. The goal of the effort is to help communities and health authorities to respond rapidly if infection rates rise.

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

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