As COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the country, cities in the Capital Region are bracing for the return of college students this month.
Tessa Sutherland is getting ready for her junior year at the University at Albany. A Documentary Studies major, her semesters are typically filled with hands-on production classes and work with the student newspaper, the Albany Student Press. She planned on living off-campus with her friends this year – but now, thanks to COVID-19, she’s hoping to escape her lease and find housing elsewhere.
“I’ve been taking COVID very seriously because my mom is recovering from cancer, and I’ve been taking care of my grandma – and I’ve had a problem with roommates who, obviously, haven’t been taking it as seriously as me," Sutherland explains. "A lot of people are feeling, I think, a certain type of way with the way their friends are handling this or not handling this. I felt like I needed to leave that situation.”
Like some locals, Sutherland is nervous about whether her peers will actually comply with health and safety protocols this fall. Over the past few months, younger people have increasingly become the main drivers of the pandemic. A Fourth of July party with over 200 guests on Albany’s Hudson Avenue sparked at least 46 cases in Albany County — so the wild card that is student behavior has some campus leaders on the defense as they game out the fall semester.
Siena College President Chris Gibson says international and at-risk, out-of-state students will move in first to complete a 14-day quarantine, but all students must get tested prior to returning to the private campus in Loudonville. They’re also required to sign a pledge to follow the school’s masking and social distancing protocols, avoid parties, and properly wash their hands.
“You know, if there’s a marijuana infraction or some kind of substance abuse there are sanctions that go along with this – and it’s the same with this, this is part of the code now," says Gibson. "We’re gonna use that hearing process, that boarding process, and it will be enforced.”
UAlbany plans to similarly enforce its own health and safety protocols. Sutherland, like most students, has been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus, and come with proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Both schools say the campuses themselves will look very different: sports are canceled across the board for the fall, dining halls will likely favor to-go containers over lunch trays, and students will be discouraged from lounging together on the quad.
However, UAlbany Dean of Students Clarence McNeill says that doesn’t mean the campus will be less active. Clubs, organizations, and communities have followed most classes and moved online.
"I think that we will see that we can actually come together and navigate in this space effectively while not losing that sense of friendship, and comradery, and being a member of a broader community – whether that’s a Greek community, whether it’s a student organization or club…but we must each individually accept responsibility for doing our part," notes McNeill.
UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez says more than half of the fall’s classes will take place online. Sutherland doesn’t expect to leave her apartment much at all, considering only one of her classes plans to meet in-person, and part-time at that.
So why do it? Why bring everybody back?
McNeill says maintaining a sense of community and normalcy for students is important – but like many businesses right now, colleges and universities across the country are feeling the squeeze. A recent analysis by a New York University professor suggested two private institutions in the Capital Region – The Sage Colleges in Troy and Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs – may not survive the pandemic (which Skidmore disputes). Albany’s College of Saint Rose, already facing a funding shortfall before COVID-19, plans to cut even more faculty after eliminating 70 positions earlier this year.
At a recent state Senate hearing, SUNY Chief Operating Officer Robert Megna estimated the system lost anywhere from $800 million to $1 billion over COVID-19 this spring, due to room-and-board refunds and a general decline in enrollment. While state officials weigh whether to open primary schools in September, United University Professions President Fred Kowal says the debate in higher education isn’t “Should we?” so much as “How should we?”
“Because we have a model in New York state, and in most states now, where so much of the cost of public higher education is paid by student tuition and fees – let’s remember fees – there’s a need for students to be on campus for financial reasons," Kowal explains. "The problem is, if there is a shutdown again, it will cause financially devastating impacts on SUNY.”
UUP is calling on SUNY to require surveillance testing for COVID-19 throughout the semester, in addition to baseline testing at the door. Some private colleges are going that route: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy particularly cranks it up a notch by not only pushing for continuous testing, but preparing to start the semester in quarantine (if needed), and asking students to keep a daily log of their whereabouts for contact tracers – just in case.
UAlbany President Rodríguez says the campus, which was converted into a drive-through testing site at the height of the pandemic, will provide testing for students as needed throughout the semester. He says the school has a number of contingency plans if anyone tests positive for COVID-19, but ultimately the success of the semester depends on cooperation.
“We do not want to shut down the university again – but trust me, if needed, we will," he assures. "And so this is not only an institutional responsibility. This is incumbent upon each and every individual that walks onto our three campuses to ensure that we’re protecting the well-being and health of our campus community.”
Sutherland agrees, and personal anxieties aside, she feels pretty good about the way UAlbany is handling things. While she won’t let the pandemic stop her from enjoying the reopening, she plans to take every precaution possible.
“I couldn’t imagine doing something like going to see a friend in like a group, and then getting COVID and then spreading it to my roommate who – you know, they didn’t go to that, they don’t really deserve to have it, they’ve taken all the precautions," she notes. "I would feel so bad."
Classes at UAlbany and Siena College are getting an early start on August 24, with both schools planning to send students home for the year by Thanksgiving.