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Another COVID Year

So, here we are, at the start of another academic year across the largest public higher education system — the State University of New York — facing the continued threats posed by a global pandemic. COVID isn’t done with us; not by a long shot.

For members of United University Professions — the union representing the faculty and professional staff at 29 SUNY campuses — COVID is a familiar foe. We have been dealing with the effects of the pandemic since it first arrived in New York back in February of 2020. Our colleagues at SUNY hospitals in Brooklyn, Stony Brook and Syracuse have been treating COVID patients since those first terrifying days when so little was known about the virus—

except that it was a merciless killer. The heroic efforts of our members protected us all, providing us with comfort and hope during a hopeless time. And once again, they find themselves on the front lines of the pandemic, as cases rises and hospital beds fill with patients infected with the Delta variant.

Through it all, these heroic healers have done all they could to save lives without any real recognition by the state they serve: former Governor Cuomo only offered platitudes and never a penny of hazard pay. The fight for that just recompense goes on.

Across SUNY, starting with that first spring semester in 2021, faculty and professional staff have worked diligently to make unique learning situations productive for our students. Through the past academic year, most campus life was muted by the coronavirus. However, given the steps UUP and SUNY have taken together, this semester promises to be quite different — though challenging in its own way.

Starting last fall, UUP pressed for and SUNY accepted and put in place an aggressive surveillance testing process. The testing modality was actually invented by a UUP member at Upstate Medical University: Dr. Frank Middleton. The testing was instrumental in preventing widespread outbreaks on campuses where students were present. With the exception of Oneonta, no SUNY campus over the academic year had to go to a complete shutdown and remote learning.

As a responsible partner, UUP negotiated with SUNY to mandate that our members would be tested as well to protect our communities and ourselves.

When vaccines became generally available by spring of 2021, UUP undertook an aggressive campaign to encourage our members to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Our data and SUNY’s data agree: Our joint efforts to encourage vaccination among faculty and staff have been incredibly successful. Well over 80% of faculty and staff across SUNY is vaccinated. And we support SUNY’s vaccination mandate for students. Only by vaccinating a similarly high percentage of our students will we be able to return to a somewhat normal teaching, learning and living environment.

Again, working with SUNY, we have gotten administration to mandate mask-wearing in all indoor settings at the campuses. This will protect the unvaccinated and also serve to slow any spread of the Delta variant.

So, with vaccinations, masks and testing, SUNY is in a much better place than last year at this time. But, challenges remain. Many are fearful of the deadly virus that has killed over 60,000 New Yorkers. Some are vaccine hesitant. Others oppose mask wearing. These challenges will make for a trying semester for SUNY and campuses across the country.

I am hopeful that we in the SUNY community will get through this semester in much better shape than last year’s fall semester. It will require the entire SUNY community to take on the responsibility of protecting each other’s health. That means being vaccinated, wearing a mask and accepting mandatory COVID testing.

Our members have shown great courage, a deep commitment to our students and patients, and a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help students succeed. I am certain that dedication will not wane.

It is with such courage, commitment and caring that we as a nation will get through the COVID crisis.

Those of us in public higher education and in unions can show the way. UUP will do our part — and more. We promise that, as it is the only way forward for all of us in the human family.

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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