On Friday, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras traveled to Suffern to meet with Rockland Community College President Michael Baston. It’s one of the SUNY colleges that recently expanded its weekly COVID-19 pooled surveillance testing program as the 64-campus system proceeds through a fall semester marked by local coronavirus spikes and shutdowns. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s color-coded COVID zones have raised new questions about transmission for college towns and commuting students.
Just before arriving on campus, Malatras spoke with WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne about pooled testing, the abrupt leadership change at SUNY Oneonta, and plans for the Spring 2021 semester.
"The hotspot became more evidence for us. When the government in the state health department put out those cluster hotspot zones, where Rockland was, you know, there's a red zone in orange and the yellow zone. Our college Rockland Community College fell into the yellow zone, we were already doing testing there, but out of an abundance of caution, and also to be sort of good citizens of the community, we wanted to just increase the testing there, just to make sure that the students, faculty and staff that go back and forth on that campus," Malatras says. "We're testing negative and that we were doing enough surveillance tests to help the community manage the spread. So it really is a testament to the leadership of President Baston, the state sort of says you should do 20%, their testing 100% of everyone who's coming on to campus. So I think it's a good way to help manage the COVID crisis, not only in the community, but also just as an added layer of protection on the campus itself."
"So Chancellor, what then is the announcement about testing if they're testing 100%?" Dunne asks.
"They just started doing that. So we're going down to talk about all the new testing efforts that they're doing, right. So they were doing some of the pooled surveillance testing that we that SUNY upstate medical provides for all of our 64 campuses," says Malatras. They ramped up very quickly, though, testing everyone weekly, because they now fall into this yellow warning cluster zone that the state created. What we're really excited about Allison is the initial results when they started testing 100% of their students and faculty and staff last week, zero positive. So it shows that it's when you're testing you can monitor this. And the good news for us is that it no cases have come back positive for us, even though we're in the sort of warning zone, the yellow warning zone to take extra precaution."
"Right and certainly at a school with a lot of commuters. So..." Dunne says.
"Absolutely, commuter college thing is a really important thing, right? We often focus on our residential program, our residential colleges, whether on dormitories and things like that, but many of our 30 community colleges all across the state, we have some residential facilities, but most of them are computers. So they're back and forth in the community," says Malatras. "And you've seen in areas not just in Rocklabnd, but we've been working with the county executive in Broome County, for instance, we approved Community College there and we work hand in glove, our college with the committee with their increase, they saw an increase in COVID, where their positivity rate was much higher than our Community College. We said, You know what, we'll take additional mitigation efforts. We'll do more online, we'll do more testing, just so we can help the community because they are back and forth within their communities."
"What about orange also, with its clusters, and then you have, you know, a climb in cases in Westchester County. So what about Westchester community college? What are you considering for those colleges?" asks Dunne. "I mean, obviously, so orange, I'm sorry, SUNY orange, I believe their Newburgh campus where there's higher cases is, is remote only as opposed to the middle town campus."
"This is what you see, right. This is an emerging situation in a fluid situation, even into the fall. And I've been working very closely with Westchester Community College, as well as orange Community College. The president of orange and I have talked repeatedly, and they jumped right on when they saw a potential number of cases in the Newburgh campus, largely surrounding their nursing program, right. So we have so much detail to our testing now that we can isolate, and see what's going on down to the program level. And we can take mitigating actions off of that," Malatras says. "So our increased testing, you know, when, when I became Chancellor, one of the big things that I was pushing for on our campuses, more testing, more surveillance testing, understand what's going on. And since we have the SUNY upstate test, we can do up to 120,000 saliva tests a week, why not do it, so we can see what's happening. Orange County is one of those perfect examples where we've been working very closely. They saw a problem in their one of their programs. They isolated the problem, but then they took extra precautions and one remote in that community. We're monitoring the Westchester situation, they have been more remote, generally this year as opposed to face to face courses. So it's a little of a different environment there. But all of these things can change. So we wanted to go to Rocklin today, because of their increased efforts, and I'm traveling Allison all over the state visiting campuses. So I'll have to go to orange now as well as Westchester because you just said I should."
"I'm not on staff Chancellor. So you know, but, but speaking..." Dunne says.
"Allison Dunne told me so I shall go," Malatras says.
"Oh, thank you if I only could wield that power in other ways. Let me ask you this. I since you were talking about you know Talking about community colleges and other places like SUNY New Paltz where it's more residential. What about SUNY Oneonta? I wanted to know if Barbra Jean Maurice wish she forced out what was what's the story there?" Dunne asks.
"We're not looking backwards. I mean president Morris told us she was looking for other opportunities, and I wish her well in her future endeavors. Our only point was, given the complexity. And what has happened on the campus recently, we wanted someone who was singularly focused on the campus. So we thought that was the time to bring in new leadership so she could pursue her other options. And President Craig, who was really successful managing the SUNY Purchase reopening, I think was the right person to help SUNY Oneonta sort of turn around the situation on that campus, which was probably the worst effort that we had on any of our senior campuses," says Malatras. "I mean, the good thing knock on wood, Allison is we performed something like 247,000 tests across our campuses over the last several weeks since the start of the semester, and only 25% have come back positive, which is which is lower than the statewide average, which is great. But we have seen situations where on a campus like Oneonta, a couple of cases emerging from a party or something like that can grow to more than 700 very quickly if you don't contain it. So I think in this in this case, what we're what we want to do is give confidence to the parents and students and faculty and staff that we've been working with they're at someone's only focus is how to deal with the spring semester. Do we bring more students back? If it's face to face? Do we do more remote? What's that process? How do we rebuild trust with the local community? Because we know there was issues there. And I think it was just the best time to do that. So you know, we wish her all the best."
"You know, it's interesting, you just said, I mean, no college president knew this was coming down the pike. Right? But I'm wondering in the SUNY system, is that a message to say, Hey, if you're president of a college and you you know, your college unfortunately, becomes in the spotlight because of the number of COVID cases? Is it a message this is where your attention needs to be? I mean, is there some sort of message to other SUNY presidents in what occurred at SUNY Oneonta?" asks Dunne.
"I will say this SUNY Oneonta was a wake up call for everyone not just for presidents, but for our students, and for our faculty and for our staff. And for auxiliary services on our campuses that provide food and other things. I think it shows very clearly, even with a good plan, even with a plan that you think could work out everything, how you implement the plan, and how you aggressively manage a plan, especially with the COVID virus is everything. And it takes an extra ordinary level of detail, and effort. And I think that was a way to sort of crystallize for everybody how fastest virus still to grow and spread among the community. I've never seen anything like that. Allison, I thought the call I was I didn't even officially Chancellor yet. I got the call. It was two cases on campus. Three days later was 46 cases, three days 100 and something cases, then 400 cases and 700 cases. That's how quickly it went. So what only afterwards it I don't think it was a wake up call to just president or Chancellor or senior leadership. I think it was a wake up call to the entire system, that we're happy to be back. Our students are thrilled to be back because march was a really disruptive thing for education, especially for our students. But we have to be more vigilant. And we can't let our guard down. Because you can see how quickly you can spread on a campus. So I think it helps sort of refocus our entire system. And I think that bears out in some of the numbers even when we've had problems. We saw an uptick at SUNY Binghamton. We've seen an uptick at SUNY Oswego. But we took extra mitigation efforts, and those campuses have reopened to in person, class activity. So it's an all hands on deck approach," says Malatras. "Our students have been doing a good job, or faculty or staff have been doing a good job and our leadership, our presidents and others of their senior leadership seems extraordinary job bringing our students back when many big systems Allison decided, you know what, we're always going to go remote. We're going to continue what we did in the spring, and we're not going to bring our students back. We made a decision to bring students back. We thought it was best academically for them. We had to take extraordinary precautions. And overall it's been going well, which we're really pleased with. But we still have more to do. We're not out of the woods yet."
"What are the plans for the spring semester? I know students come home for Thanksgiving, stay home, generally speaking, return for a spring semester, what are you looking at for the spring?" Dunne asks.
"So Allison, you have more coming from us and we've been working with our 64 campuses over the last two weeks with my team and other public health professionals because you always want this to be health driven and data driven. And what we're looking at right now and hopefully hopefully finalizing soon and you're the first Hear that? Listen. So you lucked out today, we're looking to start our semester potentially a little later than we normally do on the whole, to give us a little more time, especially in some of those colder winter months. Before we bring more of our students back, we're going to be doing a lot more pre testing of our students. So most of our campuses are going to pre test. So we have an extra level protected, we have so much testing capacity internal now, because of SUNY Upstate and even other campuses, campuses, like the University of Albany that have their own saliva test, and other things like that. So we've taken a renewed focus on some of those efforts. But I think most of our campuses will still be bringing students back, hopefully, we can bring a little more of our students back, that's a little more dependent on where we are in the vaccine process and other things, but we're going to see extra levels of protection, and then carry forward some of the things that we've done in the fall," Malatras says. "You know, we did the enhanced uniform compliance document, you know, the big bad Chancellor document, many people call that because of all the tough penalties for violating public health orders and local campus codes of conduct. We're going to continue that forward. We're going to do our regular surveillance testing moving forward and do other things to Allison, which I think is really important for our students in the spring, mental health services and other things like that. Because this is such a fun time we're going to keep expanding those types of services, make sure our students are adequately taken care of and get the nice, get the services that they need in these trying times."
Transcribed by https://otter.ai