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Could more SUNY schools close due to COVID-19?

SUNY Oneonta Facebook

Over the weekend, the State University of New York at Oneonta became the first in the 64-campus system to shut down in-person classes for two weeks after a coronavirus outbreak. State and college officials are trying to prevent the college’s closure from becoming a trend.

Newly appointed SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras, a close ally of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ordered the closure of in-person classes after several off-campus house parties held the weekend before classes began were connected to 105 students, or 3% of the campus population, testing positive for coronavirus.

Cuomo, speaking Monday, said he hopes the shutdown and the suspension of five students so far and three campus organizations deemed responsible for the parties, sends a message.

“So you wanted a party. OK, now you have to go to remote learning, which means you basically stay in the dorm,” Cuomo said. “It’s a function of discipline and compliance.”

But Cuomo said he can’t guarantee that it will be the only school that has to close.

Forty-three students at SUNY Plattsburgh were suspended after a party on Lake Champlain. Four students at the University at Albany were suspended for hosting unauthorized parties, and a fifth was removed from on-campus housing for violations of safety precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Fred Kowal is president of United University Professions, the union representing SUNY’s professors and other professional staff. He approves of the steps taken by Malatras and Cuomo so far, but he said his members remain “anxious” about their potential risk of illness when there’s an outbreak among students on campuses. On average, 30% to 40% of classes are being taught in person this fall. And he said more situations like the one in Oneonta are likely.

“They are young adults, but at the same time taking on risky behavior. That’s always been a hallmark of college students,” Kowal said. “It’s going to be a real challenge.”

Each campus has designed and implemented its own reopening plan, with guidance from the state. Kowal said he’s concerned that some schools have been slow to adopt aggressive preventive testing like pool testing, where numerous samples can be run as part of one test.

In the process, 10 to 25 people are screened, using a self-administered saliva test. If the pooled test is negative, no further tests are needed. But if the pooled results show the presence of the virus, then each person is tested individually.

Kowal said Oneonta was one of the early adopters of pooled testing, and so was able to find out more quickly if COVID-19 was spreading on campus. He said there could be a silent spread of the virus on other campuses.

Kowal said SUNY Cobleskill, where he has taught classes, is just beginning to adopt pool testing this week.

“The question is what will be discovered when the testing takes place,” he said.

He said more testing does not necessarily result in more instances of infection. SUNY Canton used the pool test and found just one case of COVID-19, from an off-campus student. But if more pool tests reveal the presence of the virus, and more individual tests have to be conducted, he said there are worries that there might not be enough testing agents to keep up.

The governor has said repeatedly in recent days that the colleges are the “canaries in the coal mine,” and that when kindergarten through 12th-grade schools open on September 14, COVID-19 outbreaks and temporary shutdowns might become "inevitable."

“So don’t be shocked,” Cuomo said. “That is going to happen.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.