ICYMI: Chancellor Malatras Writes an Op-Ed on SUNY’s Roadmap for Returning to Campus for The USA Today Network, Including the Poughkeepsie Journal

January 29, 2021

Albany, NY – In an op-ed published by The USA Today Network, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras writes about SUNY’s roadmap for returning students and faculty back to campus for the spring 2021 semester.

Read the Chancellors’ op-ed here.

A roadmap for return: How SUNY will move forward from the pandemic

My mind raced faster than I could scroll through Twitter or read the text messages. Photos of giant mask less parties. Concerned parent emails. Inquiries from the media.

It was the last Sunday in August, and I was in a car headed to Oneonta, New York—home to one of the State University of New York’s 64 colleges and universities and soon-to-be-site of a COVID outbreak that would raise major questions about the viability of in-person learning on college campuses. Within hours, I would begin my new job as Chancellor of SUNY, my appointment coinciding with students’ return to campuses.

By mid-September, we had to shut down the campus. It was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t the easy thing to do. We were happy to have students back and give them a little normalcy in this chaotic time, but this threw a wrench into that plan.  

We needed a more comprehensive and cohesive plan of attack. I began crisscrossing the state to visit campuses and meet with students to get an on the ground read out from students, faculty, and staff.

These early visits—more than 30 over three months—would turn out to be transformative:

  • We quickly acted by establishing uniform policies requiring every campus regularly test students.
  • We reached agreements with our labor unions to regularly test faculty and staff.
  • We enacted strict compliance guidelines to stop the behavior that was driving the cause of the spread on campuses.
  • We provided unprecedented transparency with a public dashboard of what is happening on our campuses for parents, students, and the public to manage the crisis.
  • We also implemented a comprehensive mental health and wellness program to help ease the emotional stress of the social isolation, anxiety, and fear because of the pandemic.

The most important component of our approach was to be nimble and to modify course when emerging issues arose. As the largest system of higher education in the nation, we are like a giant ocean liner—and it can be difficult to quickly steer a change in course. But our faculty, students, staff, and brothers and sisters in labor came together and did what was needed. For instance, early in the summer, the health experts urged college campuses to alter their traditional schedules and have in-person instruction end around Thanksgiving as a way to limit spread. By mid-fall, experts warned that small home and other gatherings were driving the increased cases—and urged travel around holidays like Thanksgiving be limited. SUNY immediately adapted requiring and undertaking a massive testing out of more than 140,000 students heading home for the holiday break.

We had a positivity rate of about a half a percent—lower than every state with more than a half a million tests conducted in a few short months. Best yet, early data suggests that because of our work, and others, classrooms were not the vector of COVID spread.

Although there is hope because of the vaccine, challenges still lie ahead and that’s why SUNY will continue to adapt to changing times. We can’t let our guard down and therefore implemented a comprehensive spring reopening plan. As our students begin to come back, we’re requiring every one of SUNY’s 64 campuses to pretest students, faculty, and staff before the start of the semester, and require weekly testing of every student, faculty, and staff on campus moving forward.

We also made the decision early on to postpone the start of the semester until February 1st, when it was projected there would be a dramatic rise in cases after the holidays. And, we cancelled spring break, mandated masks at all times, even when socially distanced, and have taken extra care to reduce chances of spread on campus.

A roadmap to stay open is only good if you can implement it. That’s where SUNY was a shining star. Our ability to test was made possible because of our innovative break throughs at SUNY Upstate Medical who invented the most accurate saliva test in the world. The University at Albany researchers developed a similar saliva test. Our students were using 3D printers to produce PPE. Some were running a peer-to-peer hotline designed to help those suffering from loneliness and depression, while others were producing videos urging their classmates to “Mask Up or Pack Up”.

We realized that by harnessing our system’s ingenuity and invention, fostering a culture of social responsibility and accountability, and creating a strict and uniform strategy for containing the virus, we could cross the finish line in the fall. And we did.

Now, we begin our next race. As we approach the spring, higher education leaders have two options: either go fully remote or bring students back with rigorous measures. Colleges that are bringing students back will face COVID-19 cases. There’s simply no way around it. As we learned, controlling that spread is a matter of preparedness, institutional will, and quick, data-driven decision making. What’s a little different this time is many of our students are coming back to communities that have higher infection rates than where they are coming from, making our comprehensive policy even more important.

And perhaps most importantly: the reopening challenge won’t be a solo endeavor. We’ve seen that students have an extraordinary desire to learn in-person and a willingness to lead—not in the future—but right now. If you create a culture of collective responsibility and accountability, they will rise to the challenge and deliver in unimaginable ways. 

At the beginning of this semester, as I drove away from SUNY Oneonta last Sunday—as they reopen once again after a long-hard fought path back, I thought of our students and their resilience. Yes, this will still be a different college experience, but their leadership and the care of our faculty and staff, gives me hope.

Jim Malatras is chancellor of the State University of New York.

About the State University of New York
The State University of New York is the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the United States, and more than 95 percent of all New Yorkers live within 30 miles of any one of SUNY's 64 colleges and universities. Across the system, SUNY has four academic health centers, five hospitals, four medical schools, two dental schools, a law school, the state’s only college of optometry, and manages one US Department of Energy National Laboratory. In total, SUNY serves about 1.3 million students amongst its entire portfolio of credit- and non-credit bearing courses and programs, continuing education, and community outreach programs. SUNY oversees nearly a quarter of academic research in New York. Research expenditures system-wide are nearly $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2021, including significant contributions from students and faculty. There are more than three million SUNY alumni worldwide, and one in three New Yorkers with a college degree is a SUNY alum. To learn more about how SUNY creates opportunity, visit suny.edu.

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