Higher education got the all-clear to reopen last week, but all that’s definite about what that will actually mean on and around campuses in Oneida and Madison counties is that the fall 2020 term will be unlike any in recent memory.
With both the Mohawk Valley and Central New York regions given the go-ahead to enter New York state’s phase four of pandemic reopening last week and higher education being among the covered sectors, institutions have begun announcing how they will handle the coming fall term.
All call for extensive promotion of social-distancing through means such as smaller classes and reconfiguration of space, some combination of in-person and online or otherwise remote instruction. They also plan testing and monitoring, improved sanitation, mask wearing, quarantine for positive-testing students and personnel, and limits on out-of-classroom activities. Dining halls will follow restaurant guidance, with reduced capacity and more take-out options.
Colleges might have to deal with a 14-day quarantine New York state has begun requiring of people arriving from states with a high rate of new COVID-19 cases, though it’s not known whether that will still be in effect and for how many states by late August, when students arrive.
Many are adjusting their calendars to squeeze more teaching days into a shortened semester while cancelling fall breaks to reduce travel back to campus from other places with more likelihood of a surge in COVID-19 cases. The big question is how much will actually happen in-person and on campus, particularly whether classes will be in-person or online or by some other remote means. It’s also unclear whether the changes will still be needed for the spring terms in 2021.
Also affected are extracurricular activities, athletics, and arts and cultural events like films, exhibitions, lectures, plays and concerts for both the colleges and their surrounding communities. It’s not certain football, soccer, volleyball and other fall sports will be played and if so, whether fans will be permitted in person, though at this point each school expects seasons to be played in some way.
And for the colleges themselves, the stakes are high. The fear is that if too many classes are online and if too few non-classroom activities are curtailed, many students will sit out a term or avoid enrolling altogether, costing schools tuition and other student-based revenue such as room and board and activities fees.
“Students today have signed up for the full experience. When they come to college and have made a choice to literally be on a college campus, while they’re here for the academics, what makes it the robust experience is also everything that they’re able to do outside of the classroom,” Utica College Provost Todd Pfannestiel said.
“The concern, and it’s a well founded concern I think among most colleges and universities, is that if you tell students who are looking for that traditional ground experience that if a college chooses not to deliver that and be solely online, well then they will look elsewhere.”
The effect could go beyond the campuses. Business and communities that cater to the campuses could suffer, particularly in Clinton, home to Hamilton College, and Hamilton and central Madison County, where Colgate University has a big economic and social footprint.
For the institutions themselves, a lot is at stake. For example, in May, Utica College President Lara Casamento announced summer furloughs of 57 employees, reductions in pay for top administration and academic leaders, a hiring freeze, limits on travel, and a salary freeze to try to cope with an expected $7 million reduction in student-based revenue for 2020-21. She warned that further cuts will likely be necessary.
For all of the institutions, it’s the proverbial unchartered waters and a learning experience.
“It will not be an ordinary semester, and it will not be entirely without risk,” Hamilton College President David Wippman said in a letter sent to students Friday.
Here is a look at what the colleges have announced:
The start of fall classes was moved up a few days to Aug. 24 with the ending now Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving, making that the effective end of the semester, with exams taken remotely after that. Fall break, originally to be in mid-October, was canceled.
According to Wippmann’s letter to students, arrival and move-in times will be staggered leading up to class start Aug. 24. The college has asked all faculty to plan for blended learning where not everyone is in the same room together. Instructors may teach in person, remotely or in combination. Class periods are being added on afternoons and evenings and some Saturdays. The period between classes has been lengthened to facilitate cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
Some classes may use spaces “traditionally reserved for other purposes,” Wippman told students, and some classes may split up, half in person and half remotely on an alternating basis.
“Hamilton prides itself on the close engagement that occurs when faculty and students come together in small classes built around personalized instruction and lively group discussion,” Wippman said in Friday’s letter to students. “We aim to preserve this strength of a Hamilton education, while adapting the classroom experience as necessary to preserve everyone’s health and safety.”
Hamilton has converted single-room and triple residence hall units to doubles to reduce density, and is adding modular housing on the south side of campus. Shared kitchen and lounge spaces may be limited, and laundry facilities will be by reservation only.
Students are advised to avoid unnecessary off-campus travel. But Wippman told them the college will plan events and activities that comply with physical distancing requirements on campus. As for athletics and other extracurriculars, Hamilton will follow guidance from New York state and the National Collegiate Athletics Association to phase in sports while monitoring for a COVID-19 rebound. “We will do everything feasible to provide appropriate experiences for our student-athletes,” Wippman said.
At Utica College, the basic plan is to offer in-person instruction but faculty are to prepare to teach online if necessary, and students may opt for online. Residence halls and other facilities will be open but with modifications and changes in procedures. However, the picture and plan is more complicated.
Provost Pfannestiel said he doesn’t look at the task as a balance, since health and safety is paramount, but a matter of keeping many balls in the air as the college developed its detailed, 250-step plan.
Students return Aug. 17 with classes starting Aug. 24, a week earlier than planned, and on-ground instruction ending by Thanksgiving. There’s no fall break, and finals will be given virtually after Thanksgiving or in an alternative setting in person before the holiday. Students whose occupational studies require off-campus experience will be given special attention and provided protective equipment. Furniture and equipment are being rearranged to promote social distancing, and plexiglass will be installed where needed.
Among other plans, there is to be a health promotion and social-media campaign, and the campus code of conduct will be amended to reflect compliance with health directives. Students may have to have an influenza vaccine and be screened before returning, with a positive COVID-19 test leading to a two-week isolation and negative test before returning. Burrstone House is the designated quarantine site.
Students, faculty and staff will be randomly sampled to get a COVID baseline, and every residence hall will be routinely screened. Everyone will get temperature checks regularly, with quarantine and contact tracing plans in place. The college will coordinate surveillance with the Oneida County Health Department.
Except for family during move-in and out, vendors, and food delivery, visitors will not be allowed without prior approval, and staff are not to bring family members to campus.
Intercollegiate athletics will continue, though only students and staff with ID attending, and play is restricted to Empire 8 conference contests, with championships in week six. Events will be live-streamed, and there is discussion of how to allow parents, Pfannestiel said.
Masks will be required, but the emphasis will be on establishing a culture of mask wearing and responsible social distancing, he said. Students who enter a class without one will be told to get one. If not, “We can bring him into our conduct procedures to be sure that they follow the rules. It won’t be suggestions; these are our absolute rules,” Pfannestiel said.
The college hopes to have a master course schedule completed soon, with the aim to have students other than those in already all-online programs to have no more than two classes taught all remotely. For the average student in 15 hours and five classes, that would be three on-ground and two online or hybrid. If a student’s schedule has more than that, the college will work on making adjustments to keep it at that target, Pfannestiel said.
The goal is to free up space for labs and certain activities best done in-person, Pfannestiel said, such as certain courses in nursing, physical and occupational therapy, for example.
“Utica College is able to deliver a high quality education and an amazing residential experience, and unless were are unable to do that, we need to move every boulder, every stone and while thinking of health and safety figure out how we can continue to do that. If not, yeah, students would look elsewhere. I have no doubt in my mind, and again, that’s true of any college or university.”
The university said Thursday it is preparing to support in-person instruction but will not operate entirely as usual.
First-year students are to arrive Aug. 23, with upperclass residences and dining halls opening two days later, and classes starting Aug. 27. Faculty and students can decide to continue instruction in a remote format, with students remaining at their primary residence. Staff, except those needed for essential services, may continue to work from home. Faculty are to prepare to teach online, and classrooms are to get technology upgrades if necessary.
Students who return will need to receive COVID-19 testing before coming to campus, and they will again receive baseline testing for COVID-19 when they arrive at Colgate. Everyone is to wear face coverings when physical distancing of 6 feet is not possible, with large gatherings curtailed.
Employees will fill out a confidential survey daily to check for symptoms or exposure. A new health team will meet daily to analyze COVID-19 data points, including information from the daily surveys.
In residence halls, triple rooms have been eliminated. Colgate hopes state and federal guidelines will allow roommates to be considered family units and will self quarantine if there is close contact with a COVID-positive person, according to a task force report prepared earlier. Gyms and fitness centers await state guidance; they were not allowed to open during the state’s fourth phase of reopening this week.
The COVID task force earlier noted that much of the plan requires buy-in from all involved.
“Members of the campus community must follow a new Commitment to Community Health policy …that emphasizes physical distancing and following protocols for testing, tracing, and self-quarantine,” the task force report stated.
“This commitment should emphasize that these behaviors are necessary not only for protecting one’s own health, but for protecting other people in the Colgate community (including the Village of Hamilton). For this reason, this policy is something more than just rules to follow: it is an important part of our social compact with each other and our community — an ethical commitment to protect one another.”
SUNY: MVCC and SUNY-Polytechnic Institute
Mohawk Valley Community College announced a starting plan today after it was approved by the Board of Trustees. It said some courses will be a hybrid of in-person and online, with some delivered entirely remotely, and that class and lab spaces have been assessed to determine their maximum capacity under social-distancing guidelines. Classrooms, labs, common areas and the residence hall will be cleaned and disinfected daily.
Residence hall bedrooms will be converted to one student per room, with common spaces still shared in suites. A testing, advisement and registration day will be held in July, and move-in will be staggered starting in mid-August. Services such as the library will be open, but the college will monitor when the fitness center can open. Dining services will be open with meal plans, but delivery procedures and schedules will be changed.
Staff will wear face coverings on campus when they cannot social distance except when at their desks. Voluntary self-screening will be conducted daily, and visitors will be asked to wear masks.
“Our academic plan is really going to be looking to have what can be remote be remote, but we’ll still have technical classes, science-based labs and a few other classes that are better taught in person,” MVCC President Randall VanWagoner told the Oneida County Board of Legislators’ Economic Development Committee during a briefing on the college’s budget. “Those will be offered on campus, and otherwise everything else will be remote.”
SUNY Polytechnic Institute on Wednesday announced a plan for its Utica campus and its graduate-level Albany campus.
SUNY Poly released a plan for fall that aims for 55-60 percent of classes online or in distance learning, and 40-45 percent face-to-face instruction. A goal is to provide opportunities for first-year and new transfer residential students to attend on-campus or on-campus versions of dual-modality classes in at least three quarters of their classes, and returning students in at least half their courses.
However, the college also is making contingency plans in case there is a local outbreak or sizable second wave of the pandemic. In one contingency scenario, 65-70 percent of classes would be online, and in the worst-case, all courses would be online or distance learning.
The plan calls for starting the fall semester a week earlier than first planned, on Aug. 24, and having a one-day fall break and switching to all distance learning after Thanksgiving so that students do not have to return after the holiday.
Students and employees returning to campus will be required to take an online self-screening basis, but at this point, temperature checks of employees are not planned. Everyone may be asked to self-quarantine up to a week before returning to campus.
Some small classrooms will not be used because they can’t accommodate distancing requirements, and some multi-purpose spaces will be converted to classroom use. Where six-foot distancing isn’t possible, such as in certain labs, plastic shielding will be installed to separate occupants.
As at other institutions, dining services will be adjusted to promote more pick-up and take-out. The campus does not plan to host events open to the public or provide space for external events, with exceptions possible for academic mission-critical events. Non-essential visitors are discouraged, and not allowed in residence halls. Necessary visits require pre-screening and mask wearing.
The athletics schedule is to be determined in conjunction with the school’s conference and will follow state, local and NCAA guidelines. Attendance, though, will be limited to participants, game management and institutional personnel.
SUNY Chancellor Kristin Johnson, in a letter on the institution’s website, said plans system-wide and across all 64 campuses are under development.
“This is a complicated undertaking with many moving parts, and it requires collaboration with a wide range of partners. We have established a SUNY COVID-19 Re-Imagine and Resume Residential Education Task Force, with seven working groups focused on specific areas integral to a safe and successful resumption of residential education — from student wellness and academic operations to community engagement, campus resources, research and the science of re-opening, physical plant preparedness and community colleges.
“Just as the State is working in concert with neighboring states on a regional re-opening approach, SUNY is working in consultation with its 64 campuses, the Governor’s New York Forward Advisory Group (Advisory Group), New York’s private colleges (CICU), CUNY, local and state elected officials, public health experts, and others. We are also reaching out to higher education leaders across the country to compare notes on best practices and determine the safest and most effective route forward.”
On Friday, the Utica campus announced an online assessment for COVID-19 symptoms for employees that will be used to screen for the disease before coming to campus.