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Fred Kowal: Making SUNY Safe

Over the past several months, United University Professions has publicly articulated our strong position about the need to safely reopen SUNY campuses this fall. To protect our students, staff and communities, we have argued for guidelines that mandate testing for all those—including our members—who will be starting the fall semester as part of the SUNY community.

The centerpiece of that testing continues to be the testing of returning students.

These students will be coming from all over the United States and around the world to our campuses and communities across the state, from Stony Brook to Fredonia and from Binghamton to Potsdam. If the statistics are correct, 1 to 2 percent of these students will be carrying the coronavirus when they arrive—whether they show symptoms or not. For a campus of 5,000 students, that means between 50 and 100 students will carry the deadly virus. The potential for rapid spread starts day one.

And yet, SUNY has not issued a directive for mandatory testing for all students, even as students begin arriving on campus this week. Yes, SUNY has mandated mask-wearing, but only if individuals are less than 6 feet apart. There have also been indications that there will be some surveillance testing to monitor situations on campuses for potential outbreaks.

We believe that this approach does not go far enough to ensure the health and safety of all students, faculty and staff and the communities in which we live.

Private colleges and universities will be testing—extensively. I applaud them for doing so. But I must ask the question: Why are those of us at public colleges and universities being subjected to much more risk than our colleagues at places like Cornell, RPI and Union?

Some would argue that testing hundreds of thousands of SUNY students would create a logistical and financial burden that the state could not possibly handle. In response, I would point out that, according to SUNY, shutting down campuses this spring cost SUNY in the range of $800 million to $1 billion. If there are outbreaks again in September or October, how bad would the financial hit be then? Can SUNY and the state afford a double hit?

More importantly, are SUNY and the state ready to respond to a statewide health crisis? As horrible as the coronavirus hit to the state was in the spring, it was concentrated in New York City, Long Island and the northern suburbs. The rest of the state was able to shift resources downstate to assist with the outbreak.

UUP members at Upstate Medical University volunteered to help at Stony Brook University Hospital during the worst of the crisis. Imagine a similar caseload that blankets the entire state! With the rest of the nation inundated with COVID cases, where will help for New York come from then?

UUP represents health care workers at SUNY’s three hospitals, and our members there literally put their lives on the line during the worst of the pandemic in the state—especially at Downstate, New York City’s only COVID19-only hospital. It is unwise and unjust to expect these remarkable caregivers to again shoulder the incredibly difficult workload—and psychologically burdensome task—of a second widespread outbreak.

And yet, they may well have to, if outbreaks originating from SUNY campuses spread across the state.

UUP is not simply concerned about the health and well-being of our 37,000 members. We are worried as well about the health of our students and their families. We are worried about the health of our neighbors, and those working in hospitals across the state, some in very small towns where services would be quickly overrun in an outbreak.

New York leveled the first wave of coronavirus because many sacrificed to help turn the tide. Governor Cuomo exhibited the kind of leadership necessary to get us through the worst days.

Now I challenge him to take the lead once again and help keep a second, worse wave from overcoming our state. Governor, you have the power to order testing across SUNY and all colleges in our state. Do it.

Let us have the information we need to control cases before an outbreak occurs. Then we can quarantine those infected, help them heal, and continue to educate the next generation of New Yorkers.

History will judge us on how we dealt with this crisis. The time for difficult decisions is upon us. If the right decisions are not made now, much more difficult and painful decisions await us in the next months. God help us then.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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