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SUNY Oneonta Working Toward Spring Reopening Plan

Dennis Craig
Screenshot from Facebook: SUNY Oneonta
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Acting President Dennis Craig gives a progress update to the SUNY Oneonta community on Facebook.

After a failed attempt to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic this fall, officials at SUNY Oneonta are working out how they can safely bring students back for the spring semester.

Acting President Dennis Craig is aware that SUNY Oneonta has been through a “traumatic” few months. Despite a state-approved reopening plan, the college had over 700 students test positive for COVID-19 within a few weeks this fall.

"I fully realize that an unsuccessful spring would be a disaster for this campus, and would further disintegrate any trust that I've built over just 10 days. Any plan for spring must begin by first determining a density level that's safe and does not put our community at harm."

In a saga that drew nationwide scrutiny, the school suspended in-person learning as it scrambled to test the entire campus population. Students confined to their dorms complained of miscommunication, lackluster food, hazardous working conditions, and partying peers, while some were whisked into quarantine in the middle of the night.

Almost as soon as it started, it ended, with the college sending students home to complete the rest of the semester online. College President Barbara Jean Morris abruptly resigned, and SUNY tapped Craig, a former interim president at SUNY Purchase, to lead the push for spring.

Ever since, the school’s COVID-19 Response Team has been fielding questions from the community in hopes of releasing a revised reopening plan as soon as Monday. In a pair of online town hall meetings, Craig stressed to students and staff that he was there to serve them first. And that the pressure is on. 

“I have an ethical and fiduciary responsibility to all of you that I take very seriously. I fully realize that an unsuccessful spring would be a disaster for this campus and would further disintegrate any trust that I've built over just 10 days," he notes. "Any plan for spring must begin by first determining a density level that's safe and does not put our community at harm.”

Perhaps the biggest change in the works is restricting the number of people on campus. In other words, not all students will be coming back. The school hasn’t specified how many will return, or how it will decide who can and can’t live on campus – but those who do may have a room to themselves.

Counseling Center Director Melissa Fallon-Korb says the college is also setting aside more space for quarantined students. 

“Three halls next time, and they will be staffed 24 hours a day. We're still working on the staffing, but there will be staff in the buildings," she assures. 

Given the lower-density campus, Provost Leamor Kahanov says the school will continue to rely heavily on remote learning. By SUNY decree, classes start February 1 across the 64-campus system, and while Kahanov says about 7 percent of undergraduate courses are on campus, students can still elect to take them online if they prefer. Under a “dual modality” model, teachers will have both in-person and online students in the same class, and students will be able to gauge ahead of time what those classes will look like.  

“So part of what we are doing is identifying on the schedule specifically what kind of online class it is. So students have a better idea of what they're choosing," Kahanov explains. "Whether it is synchronous, their class is going to meet at the same time, [or] whether it is asynchronous, which is going to be at different times, they will not be meeting with their class, or whether there's a combination for the class.”

Kahanov adds many professors have undergone certified training for online teaching next semester.

"A culture of force is sometimes not as strong as a culture of values and all of us encouraging and really expecting peer behavior."

While Craig stresses his independence in running the Oneonta campus, the college does have more guidance from SUNY central this time around. Chancellor Jim Malatras says all SUNY students must be tested upon returning to campus – something SUNY Oneonta took a lot of heat for not doing back in August. Furthermore, Spring Break is off the table (to be replaced by four “wellness days” across the semester), and Associate Vice President for Student Development Amanda Finch says the college can impose harsher sanctions against those who host or attend off-campus parties. 

“The sanctions are severe, and they're meant to be," Finch notes. "They range from card access restrictions or revocation of on-campus housing license all the way to suspension or dismissal from the institution.”

The city of Oneonta recently passed its own ordinance mandating face coverings at outdoor public spaces, restaurants, bars, and stores. While the city has so far come away unscathed from the college outbreak, at least as far as COVID-19 spread is concerned, Craig admits it’s going to take a lot of work to repair town-gown relations. He says the college’s messaging can be more forceful when it comes to health and safety protocols – but ultimately, students still need to hold each other accountable. 

“A culture of force is sometimes not as strong as a culture of values and all of us encouraging and really expecting peer behavior," Craig explains. "The language [used by the school] was even further diluted [this fall]. I think it said ‘highly encouraged,’ which I thought was wrong, and was sending a completely wrong message about what someone's obligation should be to their community. So the language was changed [to] ‘We expect you to do this.’” 

SUNY Oneonta has more than 6,500 undergraduate students, many of whom hope to return to the city come January, according to surveys done by the school. Some good news for those down about the new college experience: Craig is optimistic about a possible in-person graduation ceremony this spring. A virtual celebration for 2020 graduates, who have yet to have a formal commencement, is planned for December 6.

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast, "A New York Minute In History."
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