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Following Shutdown, SUNY Oneonta Faculty Concerned Over Spring Reopening

SUNY Oneonta petition banner
A petition started by some faculty at SUNY Oneonta has gained over 700 signatures from teachers, students, and alumni this month.

After shutting its campus down amid one of New York’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks in September, SUNY Oneonta has released its reopening plan for the spring semester. As WAMC’s Jesse King reports, some faculty are worried about returning to the classroom.

Acting President Dennis Craig and the college’s new COVID-19 Response Team have conducted multiple town halls with parents, faculty, and students over the past month. The resulting plan envisions a lively but lower-density campus of just over 1,000 students, with socially-distant activities, “wellness days” in place of Spring Break — and 20 percent of courses in the classroom via a "dual modality" model, in which faculty teach both in person and online. 

"Couple problems with that," says Dr. Keith Schillo, who teaches Human Anatomy and Physiology at SUNY Oneonta. "None of us have experience with it...The general report from people who have done this is that it's twice as much work."  

Keith Schillo
Credit Provided by Keith Schillo
Dr. Keith Schillo

Schillo is part of a group of faculty who petitioned the school to, among other things, stop pushing teachers to return to the classroom this spring. While his own classes are too large to hold in person, given social distancing protocols, Schillo says the dual modality model pressures his younger, untenured colleagues into a potentially hazardous situation. 

"[The administration was] very unclear," Schillo explains. "The wording was 'If we don't find enough volunteers, then the chairs and the deans will 'support you' in finding people to teach courses.' I don't know what that meant. It seemed like a threat, it seemed like a mandate — but no one's been clear about that." 

Schillo says the school offered a $1,000 bonus to volunteers earlier this month – a move the petition says unfairly pressures “our most marginalized and vulnerable faculty.” At a recent town hall, Provost Leamor Kahanov set the record straight on the matter: no one’s mandating anyone to do anything.

"There is no mandate. We're seeking those who are willing, and we did achieve approximately 20 percent of our classes face-to-face or dual modality," she clarifies. "And so there were enough individuals on this campus who felt that they wanted to be in the classroom." 

Craig also addressed the petition during the town halls and in a recent memo to faculty. He says the percentage of “mask-to-mask” classes planned at SUNY Oneonta is still well below the amount being offered at other schools across the 64-campus system. He calls the petition “counterproductive and divisive – at least to a point,” by pitting the wishes of students and parents against faculty. 

“We've really been flooded by phone calls and emails that have seen the petition on social media. And, you know, there are a lot of students and parents in particular that don't really, I guess, see the whole picture. And they're very upset," he explains. "They're comparing us to other campuses. The students are seeing other campuses approach COVID very differently with many more types of in-person learning.”

SUNY Oneonta maintains the odds of COVID-19 transmission in the classroom are low, and says roughly half of its students expressed a desire to come back in a recent survey. In his memo to faculty, however, Craig specified that only 644 students responded to that survey as of November 19, making Schillo question its reliability.

"We are the bulk of what goes on here, we're the ones who know the students better than anybody else. And we're the ones who will take the risk if we have to."

As for the rest of it — here’s the plan. Under SUNY guidelines, in-person learning starts February 1. On-campus students will begin moving in at SUNY Oneonta as early as January 21, following what the school says is a required 14-day quarantine and a negative COVID-19 test. The semester officially kicks off with remote classes on January 25.

In addition to wastewater testing, SUNY Oneonta plans to test all on-campus students and staff weekly. Those living in town who use campus facilities — commuters, athletes, etc. — will also be tested. In general, Counseling Center Director Melissa Fallon-Korb says the college will randomly test a portion of the off-campus population each week. 

“We're aiming for about 10 percent a week, so we'll test about 200 off-campus students per week, and off-campus students can expect to be mandated two or three times a semester," says Fallon-Korb. 

Those who do live campus can stretch out a bit, as they’ll have a room to themselves (at the lower, double-room rate). Residence halls will limit bathrooms to “pods” of about three or four students each, and students can request to be grouped with friends on their housing application, to be submitted by December 3.

As for who gets first dibs, Associate Vice President for Student Development Amanda Finch says the school is prioritizing students with extenuating circumstances (homelessness, food insecurity, etc.) — and those who sign up for that 20 percent of in-person classes. 

“So our hope is that by December 3, students will know what they're registered in, and will be able to request on campus housing based on an in-person class registration," Finch adds. "Certainly, if by December 3 we have to extend that deadline so that students can finish the registration process, we will absolutely do that. But that's the timeline that we're working on now.”

Kahanov assures students that any in-person class they sign up for now will remain in person come spring, but Schillo says, upon learning the 20 percent mark wasn’t a mandate, some teachers leaned back toward remote learning.

SUNY Oneonta tea lights
Credit Provided by Keith Schillo
SUNY Oneonta faculty placed tea lights throughout the quad Tuesday night, to recognize the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Otsego County.

Ultimately, the petition has broadened its scope in the past few weeks, focusing on the safety needs of general staff and the local community. A Cornell University study last spring listed Otsego County as particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, should it experience a localized outbreak. Nerves are still raw after more than 700 Oneonta students tested positive in the fall, leading to the abrupt closure of campus and eventually the president’s ouster. And students aren’t coming back to the same, sleepy area they snapped awake last August – New York state is well into the second wave of the pandemic, with COVID-19 cases expected to surge with the holiday season.

On Tuesday, the Otsego County Department of Health reported 21 new cases, marking over 1,200 since March. To recognize that number, Schillo says SUNY Oneonta faculty blanketed the main quad in small, LED tea lights Tuesday night.

Where Craig and the petitioners might agree is that there’s no foolproof, 100-percent safe plan to please all parties this spring. Schillo says what they mostly want is a more prominent seat at the table – “shared governance” – going forward.

"We are the bulk of what goes on here, we're the ones who know the students better than anybody else. And we're the ones who will take the risk if we have to," says Schillo. "But suppose we gear up to do this dual modality, and then, two weeks into the semester, we shut down again. Those poor people who went and did all this work, now have to go back to remote instruction again. It would be the third time faculty have had to switch how they do things." 

SUNY Oneonta did not respond to an interview request from WAMC. The public college has more than 6,500 undergraduate students, and just under 500 faculty. You can access the petition here, and the full reopening plan at the college's website

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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