First things first — a big thank you to Oneonta’s two college presidents, Margaret Drugovich and Dennis Craig, and their teams for the responsible and comprehensive way in which they have both designed and implemented their spring semesters amid the challenges of COVID-19.
Our colleges are part of the fabric of this community. We are inextricably linked, particularly during this unprecedented public health crisis. Navigating this pandemic successfully requires close coordination among community and college leaders in establishing new norms, messaging, enforcement, transportation and health care. This virus sees no boundaries and we are one big community in its eyes. If we are to be successful, we must also learn to see it that way.
As the opening of the 2020 fall semester neared, I was outspoken regarding my concerns with SUNY Oneonta’s planned approach. It is only fair that I now acknowledge all they are doing that is right. We know that testing — and isolating those who may test positive — is key. Since the opening of the spring semester, the college has been testing students on a weekly basis with as many as 2,000 tests being administered each week. The college now reports only nine positive cases during the past two weeks compared to the more than 500 cases of COVID recorded during the first two weeks of last fall’s semester.
Why the drastic change? The difference is attributable to understanding that we are one community. And, as such, we are responsible for keeping each other safe. Together we will succeed or together we will fail. We have seen that Acting President Dennis Craig gets that. The campus COVID Response Team meets regularly with me and our city health officer, Dr. Diane Georgeson, to discuss strategies, accomplishments and concerns. Our council members have direct access to the college administration.
Dr. Franklin Chambers, as the newly appointed vice president for external affairs, stays in close contact with students living off campus by both holding them accountable for being responsible neighbors and encouraging positive civic involvement. University Police officers, under Chief Jennifer Fila, now work in partnership with our Oneonta Police Department in conducting weekend party patrols. And students themselves are spreading the message of community through social media and by designing and distributing posters for display in local businesses and city buses.
Just across the West Street valley on the facing hillside, Hartwick College — after its successful fall and J terms — is showing similar outcomes as it begins its spring semester. With consistent messaging on community responsibility and the new norms of COVID, President Margaret Drugovich is providing Hartwick’s students with 100% in-person classes without an uptick in cases. Last summer, President Drugovich told me that she would not open the college unless she truly believed she could do so in a way that would not jeopardize the health of our local community.
Oneonta is a college city. Our two colleges and the students who come here are important parts of our community, both culturally and economically. Oneonta needs strong colleges and the colleges need a strong Oneonta for us all to be successful. With the difference in energy levels, lifestyles and perspectives between generations, there will always be some tension. But the high stakes of the pandemic have forced us to find ways to do better.
Despite having several thousand students living with us, house parties have now been rare; our police are reporting few complaints; and our bus drivers say that students are being courteous and respectful of all required precautions including distancing and mask wearing. At my request, Council Member Mark Drnek has put together a Town-Gown Task Force composed of students and faculty from both colleges, local business owners and city officials. They are looking to build upon their successes of late fall when students decorated Main Street with scarecrows and provided children with Halloween treats for the downtown businesses.
You may have heard the saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste." The virus provided us with a common enemy. It does not discriminate and is happy to infect all in its path, regardless of who they are. After some early stumbles, we may have learned that we can do better when we work in partnership. I am going to be an optimist and believe that this is a time at which we can reset our expectations. The virus has forced us to raise the bar and we have shown that it can be done. It is now up to us to keep the bar raised — even after COVID has left us.
Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at email@example.com