SUNY preps for spring semester reopening

State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras and Columbia-Greene Community College President Carlee Drummer during Malatras' visit to the campus Monday afternoon. Natasha Vaughn/Columbia-Greene Media

HUDSON — Schools in the State University of New York system are gearing up for the start of the spring semester with new COVID requirements in place.

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras visited Columbia-Greene Community College on Monday, the first day of classes for the spring semester.

Malatras announced new COVID guidelines for SUNY schools require students to be tested weekly for COVID-19 if they are living or working on campus or attending in-person classes.

“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for everyone,” Malatras said Monday. “Our students have had real difficulties, I see it. It’s hard being back on campus in a modified way, but I think our students are overjoyed to be back on campus. I was at SUNY Oneonta yesterday and they were just so happy to be back. But at the same time, a lot of students are isolated either socially or emotionally, and that takes a toll.”

Reopening guidelines for the spring semester also require students to be tested prior to the start of the semester, mandatory pre-semester quarantining for students living on campus and other guidelines such as a mandatory mask policy and social distancing.

The SUNY school system is the largest in the country and unlike some other large school systems, they are allowing for an in-person education this semester, Malatras said.

“Many big systems, like California’s, went remote. They didn’t even try,” Malatras said. “The CUNY (City University of New York) system didn’t even try to go in person, they went remote. We took that chance, we put in tough guidance to do it and I think it’s worked out well.”

The SUNY COVID-19 Case Tracker website reports that across the 64 SUNY campuses, since August, 723,891 COVID-19 tests have been performed, with 4,138 positive cases reported for a positivity rate of 0.57%.

“The positivity rate here in Columbia County right now is 7.5%,” said Malatras. “Those students are coming in from the community, so we want to take extra precaution. That’s why testing even in a commuter college, where there’s not a lot of residential students, is really important, plus masks all the time plus social distancing. I think all those things have to work together.”

For many SUNY schools the positivity rate of the students on campus is lower than that of the county where the school is located, Malatras pointed out.

“It’s been a challenge, but I think people have stepped up,” he said. “You see here today they are open for testing, people come, they volunteer their time, they help out everywhere they can. Everyone is really pitching in and doing what they need to do.”

Most schools in the SUNY system will start the spring semester Feb. 1. Columbia-Greene Community College began classes Monday. As planned last fall, SUNY schools are beginning the spring semester a week late because of COVID-19.

“In October we put out pretty comprehensive spring reopening guidance,” Malatras said. “One of the main pieces was to delay our instruction until at least Feb. 1. There’s some exceptions to that. Some schools have pushed that off for another week or so.”

SUNY schools canceled spring break as well, Malatras said. This will allow for the summer semester to start on time and reduce the potential COVID spread for students if they are not leaving campus for a spring break.

“We don’t really want our students traveling as much this year,” said Malatras.

Some SUNY schools are beginning the spring semester remotely, he added.

One of the issues SUNY is facing is its mandatory testing policy, Malatras noted. Agreements have been reached with all of the school systems’ unions.

“Our students are all required to test,” Malatras said. “We’ve signed agreements with all of our collective bargaining units, the only ones holding out have been the college professors at the community college level. So the four-year colleges’ UPs (union presidents) have signed it. So we’re working through that, but I think it’s a really important thing for us.”

Malatras said the collective bargaining unit at Columbia-Greene Community College has not signed on to the testing mandate that would require professors to be tested weekly.

“We think it’s really important because the more you test, the more you can understand the problems on campus,” Malatras said. “So you could take dramatic actions, you could have a couple cases, but you could see oh, we’ve tested everyone and it’s isolated to one department, you don’t have to shut the whole school down. So we want everyone to sign up and do that sooner rather than later.”

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