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SUNY Chancellor Sends Update on Safe Reopening Strategy

Kristina Johnson

Kristina M. Johnson, Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) has distributed a message to the SUNY community regarding strategies toward a safe reopening of the system. The message reads as follows:

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Kristina Johnson, Chancellor, State University of New York

Throughout the unprecedented novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, SUNY has responded as a system. Students, faculty and staff at each of our 64 individual campuses continue to contribute what they can and when they can, leveraging their own distinctive expertise.

I am writing to you now for two reasons. First, to thank you for your courage, grit and resiliency as we navigate these uncharted waters. Though there have been some bumps in the road with our near-universal shift of classes to distance learning, this never-before-attempted experience has been largely a success. That’s thanks to you and your passion for higher education and carrying out the SUNY motto – to learn, to search and to serve.

And in addition to our students, faculty and staff moving to remote instruction within a fortnight, you used 3D printers to make face shields and sew masks, producing more than 55,000 personal protection equipment for New York State medical center staff. You are carrying out research on COVID-19 diagnostic tests, clinical trials of promising therapeutics, novel tracing technologies, and genome sequencing to further our understanding of the virus and accelerate a path toward solving this pandemic.

Our first responders and frontline healthcare workers from Upstate Medical University left the safety of their homes to volunteer downstate, where SUNY hospitals have cared for thousands of COVID-19 patients. SUNY campuses on Long Island are home to temporary field hospitals, and campuses all over the State are setting up regional drive-through testing sites.

And this past year we invested time and resources in building a system-wide, online platform – SUNY Online, which allows faculty from any SUNY campus to follow their students and oversee academic progress anywhere and at any time. This preparation paid off in an unexpected way.

All of this is part of what it means to be #SUNYTogether, with everyone pulling together toward the same ultimate goal to deliver absolute inclusivity – high-quality education for all New Yorkers. And I thank you for your fighting spirit and support.

My second reason for writing is to be informative and transparent about what we are doing and how we are planning to resume face-to-face, on-campus instruction, research and scholarship.

The infection curve thankfully is now flattening as a result of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “PAUSE” effort and the State is moving toward a phased-in re-opening of the economy.

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 (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.

We understand that resuming face-to-face instruction cannot occur in a vacuum; each of our campuses is a complex ecosystem with regular engagement with their respective surrounding communities. The Task Force is working collaboratively with the Governor Advisory Group to develop plans and a checklist of criteria that must be met before on-campus learning resumes.

In addition to a checklist, and part of our resume strategy, SUNY is creating a risk wheel that will dynamically pull real-time data from a number of dashboards to help all of us manage operations during the transition back to face-to-face instruction and beyond.

Again, this is a complicated and fluid process that is changing by the day and informed by the input of a wide array of experts. We recognize that this situation has been both challenging and frustrating, and we thank the members of our SUNY community for being both resilient and patient as we work to determine the safest path forward.

Our main goal is to be able to fulfill our mission of providing high-quality education to all students with the broadest possible access, while prioritizing the health and wellness of the entire system. There are numerous challenges ahead, and we are assessing the changing landscape daily and responding to them as quickly as we can. We will continue to provide updates as they become available. Thank you again for your resiliency, courage and grit during this difficult time.

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  • I have been a professor in a community college for two decades. Many students need the support and encouragement from a face to face teacher.A computer screen cannot offer motivation for a student to keep trying and tap into inner resources. I look forward to returning to my students in a learning environment,the classroom on campus.

    • My son needs the one to one contact. He has ADHD and needs the redirection that is given while in class. He is graduating in May from Suffolk and he has worked so hard to get this far it would break my heart if he does not have face to face education in the fall.

    • Would you feel the same if you had one or more co-morbidity factors? Would you be willing to risk your life in order to help your students “tap into inner resources”?

      I don’t think you understand the gravity of what we’re facing here. Obviously online learning has disadvantages, but when it’s a life-or-death situation, we have to prioritize.

  • My main concern is the community colleges where a large percentage of students in urban or suburban campuses such as SUNY Westchester take crowded public buses to campus. The buses are a hotbed for germ transmission.

  • I think SUNY should find a way to open in the Fall. Maybe have classes both online & in person to give students the option & help with social distancing.

      • I find it amazing that so many people are willing to risk instructors’ lives to teach face to face (f2f). At my community college there are over 33 students sitting 2 inches apart in a small room, no windows open and faulty ventilation. Due to the state caring little for our poorest students we are getting short changed on CAREs and the legislature has decided community colleges will bear up to 50% cuts while the better endowed 4 year SUNY’s only 10%. Who will sanitize after each class? Provide PPE for instructors or provide the minimum 6 feet of distancing? Who will fix the faulty HVAC system that spews particles regularly into the air? Do you think it won’t be recirculating the virus? We couldn’t even get the college to install hand sanitizers on each floor; does anyone really think instructors will be protected? We worked tremendously long hours to get our students through this semester. Query: how many of you would go back to work in such an environment ? Thanks for caring so much about our lives and those of our family.

        • As long as everyone in the class is wearing a mask and socially distanced at six feet, the risk is minimal. A plexiglass barrier between the instructor and students can also be installed to further reduce any risk. Also, don’t forget that the region will have to go through Cuomo’a reopening phases first. By then, the virus is likely to be tamped down or eradicated completely, because it doesn’t survive very well in hot, humid, sunny weather. There are a lot of other things the University can do as well. Students will be tested when they arrive on campus in the fall. The university can open dorms and in-person classes to freshmen and sophomores only. It can restrict commuter students – who live and study at home anyway – from taking their classes in person. It can place hand sanitizer outside each of the classrooms, etc., etc. This is what a lot of other schools are doing to make their campuses safe; they are taking reasonable precautions, which is all anyone can do. The alternative is permanent quarantine, i.e, everyone self-isolating in locked rooms from which they never emerge because of the theoretical possibility of a “second wave,” which, by the way, Dr. Fauci has said is not inevitable. The bottom line is that life has risks, and so does coming to college. Every time you drive to the campus on the LIE, you’re risking your life, but you don’t stay home to avoid that risk. You minimize the risk. You put your seat belt on, you stay alert, you check your mirrors before changing lands and make sure your vehicle is well-maintained.

        • I couldn’t agree more. And how will we stop kids from partying in packed Frat Houses or Bars. An outbreak on a campus will be a disaster. I’m not sure what people are thinking. Look at Florida, Texas, Arizona, and today they are reporting that it is mostly young folks spreading the virus, 18 to 34. This is frightening.

    • With all due respect, please tell me how we will get these kids to stop partying. Bars and fraternity houses pack in like sardines. An outbreak on campus will be a disaster. God help us.

  • It’s very easy to talk about having a semester of remote learning, but that is not taking into account the fact that students are now completing over three-and-a half months of that already. Are they supposed to endure another four months of remote learning in the Fall because of the theoretical possibility that the virus may still be around, which is not certain? And what happens if the virus does not return until, say, the middle of December? Then the University, will have cancelled the Fall semester needlessly and, I suppose, will then cancel the entire Spring semester as well, so students will have to somehow endure an entire year of “remote learning” as a prisoner in their own rooms. This assumes that they even have their own rooms and do not live in a cramped apartment or share a bedroom with a younger sibling. And if the so-called “second wave,” which is purely speculative and not inevitable, does not materialize at all, then the University will have cancelled the Fall semester and lost all that revenue, etc., for no reason. And what about the mental health of the students who will be forced to take a full slate of online college classes – with all of the Zoom lectures, readings, written work, papers, tests, etc. that that would entail – for an entire semester, or more, from home with no change in scenery? They would have all of the responsibilities of college work and none of the socializing or fun. That is not what college is about. The University must find a way to reopen in the fall, just like 70% of colleges are planning to do, and to be fair to students, must make that decision by June 1st, not June 30th, which is far too late, and prejudices students from making other college choices. Please put a plan in place for students to return to campus with a contingency plan in the unlikely event that the virus returns.

    • I agree. Students cannot learn from remote classes. Sitting in front of a computer is not encouraging students to learn. And we have to pay the same amount of tuition for remote classes. Why? Universities and colleges have enough money to provide testing centers, masks, and disinfectant products. Students can maintain distance by being 6 feet apart and by wearing masks/gloves. If it’s very uneasy for colleges and universities to resume face-to-face, then students should be given option to attended either face-to- face classes or remote classes.

  • Those of you that want our likes to return to face to face are not thinking clearly. An outbreak once these kids are back on campus will be a disaster. Tell us how you will stop the kids from partying. You know as well as I do that this is not possible. Sending students back to school on campus before a vaccine is available is a recipe for disaster. God help us. Thanks to Gov. Cuomo, we have done everything right in NY. I hope we do not make the ultimate mistake now.

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