Thousands of State University of New York students received their last SUNY-mandated coronavirus test as they prepare to return home until the spring semester, which is set to begin in February as the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to surge through the winter.

The state’s 64-campus higher education system mandated all 140,000 students taking in-person classes or those who frequent gyms, libraries or dining halls test negative for the novel coronavirus before leaving for Thanksgiving break.

Most students will not return to in-person instruction until the scheduled start of SUNY’s spring semester Feb. 1, preventing travel to and from campuses between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

All students, faculty and staff were mandated to be tested once every two weeks, or one virus incubation period, throughout the fall semester.

“I think our students have done extraordinarily well,” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said. “Our students have been regularly tested throughout the semester ... so it has become normalized, which has helped.

“I think we’re one of the few systems that have mandated testing out for Thanksgiving break,” added Malatras, who serves as a lead official on the state’s Coronavirus Task Force.

SUNY strengthened its testing requirements after SUNY Oneonta went to all-remote learning for the semester Sept. 3 after more than 700 students tested positive and five were suspended in connection to large parties.

SUNY conducted hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests this semester with saliva, instead of nasal swab, tests, which were evaluated for positives in a pooled method of multiple samples after innovative work from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. The methods were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“We’re requiring everyone to be tested on the way back as well,” Malatras said.

Saliva and pooled testing may be expanded in the state beyond the SUNY system after the holiday season, Malatras said.

Students found in violation of SUNY’s COVID-19 policies, including mandated testing, remaining a socially distanced 6 feet from others or holding mass gatherings could face disciplinary penalties, including expulsion.

“[Students] saw and experienced what happens when you close the campuses,” Malatras said of SUNY’s initial March shutdown when the virus first ravaged the state and nation. “They wanted to be back on campus experiencing college life as much as they could.”

Columbia-Greene Community College in Greenport does not house students on-campus, but was required to routinely test all students, faculty and staff.

The Columbia County campus conducted Thanksgiving exit testing from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 17 and 18 in the dining hall. Results were not available as of press time Friday afternoon.

Columbia-Greene tested 514 students, faculty and staff with three total positives, or 0.58%, as of Friday, according to SUNY’s COVID-19 online tracker at suny.edu/covid19-tracker.

“Three students — one taking an on-campus class and two enrolled in remote classes — took independent tests that resulted in a positive outcome,” according to a statement from C-GCC President Carlee Drummer. “In other words, these students who tested positive did not receive those results from the C-GCC testing.”

Students who test positive must immediately contact their primary care physician and the appropriate Department of Health for guidance. Typically anyone who tests positive is put into immediate isolation.

C-GCC students enrolled in face-to-face classes for the fall semester will return to campus after Thanksgiving. Nine faculty will return to campus after next week’s break to teach their classes, which end Dec. 23.

“C-GCC staff work a staggered schedule every week to comport with the building density requirement,” Drummer said.

The college will be closed from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1 and Jan. 18, 2021. Testing will resume following the winter break.

SUNY Albany tests an average of 1,000 students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 Sundays through Thursdays, with the capacity to conduct more tests, if necessary, according to spokesman Jordan Carleo-Evangelist.

“We don’t differentiate between regular positives and pre-departure positives because the procedure for dealing with them is the same,” Carleo-Evangelist said of required Thanksgiving COVID test results, which is expected to be released next week. “...Because we’re already testing all students coming to campus weekly, we don’t need to do a special round of pre-departure testing. We are handling this pre-departure testing through our normal weekly surveillance testing.”

Each student is assigned a weekly surveillance testing day, determined alphabetically by last name. The campus completed 34,158 tests with 281 positives, or 0.82%, to date through the semester, according to SUNY’s COVID tracker.

“Students collect their own saliva samples at home and leave them in drop boxes around campus,” Carleo-Evangelist explained. “The samples are collected from the drop boxes and delivered to an on-campus lab in the RNA Institute for analysis.”

SUNY Albany provided isolation and quarantine space through the semester, but any student headed home for Thanksgiving who tests positive is allowed to isolate and recover at home after providing the Albany County Department of Health with contact information and the address of where they will quarantine.

“Once someone tests positive, they are subject to restrictions imposed by public health authorities, not the university,” Carleo-Evangelist said.

The Albany campus will not offer in-person instruction after Thanksgiving, but expects to have between 400 and 450 students living on campus — mostly in on-campus apartments — during intersession.

SUNY officials will continue to evaluate COVID-19 conditions and numbers statewide before the start of the spring semester. The Feb. 1 date is subject to change.

“We re-evaluate every day — we look at this so closely every day,” Malatras said of statewide coronavirus infections and statistics, but added SUNY’s overall positvity rate remains low. “I think we’ll have to monitor what’s happening nationally. We have a lot of students who live outside New York state and have to comply with travel orders. New York has done such a good job [compared to] the uptick nationally... we’re confident and hopeful that date will be the date we’re going to go by.”

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