Five students threw off-campus parties. Now, an entire SUNY campus is shut down for the semester.
On August 29, the President of SUNY Oneonta Barbara Jean Morris sent a letter to students and faculty explaining that five students had been suspended after being identified as party hosts, and that three organizations were in the process of being suspended as well. At that point, 29 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed within the campus community, with more testing to be done in the coming weeks.
Per the Governor’s orders, the college had to switch to remote learning temporarily once their cases reached 5% of the campus population, and that benchmark was exceeded on Aug. 30. Since then the numbers have exponentially increased, with 507 students testing positive and 117 students in mandatory isolation as of Sept. 3, when the campus officially closed all in-person classrooms and activities for the fall 2020 semester.
Birdie Rose Morelli, a third-year early childhood education major, just transferred to Oneonta from SUNY New Paltz this semester. They wanted a change, but this was more than they had bargained for.
“From what I’ve seen, people are less concerned in Oneonta. There are huge parties and people are not taking the virus seriously,” Morelli said. “I’m disappointed. I understand wanting to go out and party, but if there’s a ton of people in a house and you’re not even attempting to stay safe, you’re putting others at risk. Wear a mask. It’s not hard.”
Morelli also noted that students who tested positive for COVID-19 were able to return to their dorms to pack before being put into quarantine. They stressed the importance of testing before returning to campus and wondered if mandatory testing before the semester would have slowed the spread.
Mary Calabro, a fourth-year adolescent education major, is currently quarantining in her off-campus apartment with five other students. She chose to go back to campus to help her focus on schoolwork and to spend her last semester with friends before student-teaching in her hometown of Putnam Valley in the spring.
“Going into the semester I felt odd,” Calabro said. “I felt the school should’ve tested all of us [for COVID-19] before the semester even started. The campus was not prepared for this in any sense. We found out about the first outbreak from the news on our phones, and the school contacted us hours later through an email.”
In addition to the adjustment to a “new normal” for most students, the outbreak caused tensions between full-time residents and college students in the town of Oneonta. Prior to the outbreak, Otsego County had less than 100 cases since March.
“The outbreak got students on and off-campus very nervous,” Calabro said. “The town was [also] very concerned about the increase in cases because they had no cases before we came back. The energy is very tense at the moment and it will be for a little while.”
SUNY schools vary on their approach to testing and tracing. Most schools provide testing to symptomatic students on campus, but are not requiring testing for all students to return to residence halls. SUNY New Paltz has just recently put in place mandatory testing for all residential students, though commuters are not required to be tested before entering campus.
While SUNY Oneonta is the first SUNY school to be shut down completely for the semester due to COVID-19 concerns, it is far from the only campus seeing spikes. SUNY Fredonia currently has 50 active confirmed cases, and many schools are suspending students and organizations for not following social distancing guidelines on and around campus.
Of course, this is not the typical college experience — especially for freshmen. Most students going off to college expect parties, organization fairs and meals eaten in large groups at the dining hall. None of that is possible anymore in the COVID-19 era.
“I feel for the freshmen and sophomores that had to experience this first-hand on campus,” Calabro said, at the close of our conversation. “I can’t imagine my first years at college being ruined. Regardless, our health and safety have to come first.”
As a residential student at SUNY Oneonta, Morelli has been forced to leave campus pending a negative test result as the school ceases operations for the semester. They are one of over 5,000 students forced to end their semester and return home.
“I love it here,” Morelli said. “I was having such an amazing time, and now it’s over before it even started.”