ONEONTA (TNS) — Gray clouds and a quiet calm loomed over the SUNY Oneonta campus Tuesday afternoon.
No students gathered on stone benches to share their lunch. No one rushed up the concrete steps, hurrying to their next class.
An unusual silence hovered here, a stark contrast to the swarm of events over the weekend that abruptly shifted the course of the liberal arts college’s fall semester.
On Sunday, State University of New York officials quickly shut down in-person learning at the Oneonta campus after 105 students tested positive for COVID-19 since students began moving in Aug. 17.
Since then, the number had increased to 245 as of Tuesday, Sept. 1, forcing SUNY Oneonta to become the first college in New York to shut its doors since welcoming students back for the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic.
On-campus students — more than 2,000 of them — have been asked to quarantine in place, unable to leave campus unless their parents pick them up to bring them home. They’re reliant on delivered meals from the campus dining halls. They can go outside, but they can only congregate in groups of three or less.
Faced with containing the COVID-19 beast, SUNY Oneonta has become an experiment in state and campus leaders’ ability to limit an on-campus cluster that threatens to throw the semester into chaos.
It’s an unenviable task: Colleges hoping to avoid a similar fate will be watching their every move closely, as will the greater Oneonta community and the students cooped up in their dorm room the next two weeks.
”Up until last night it was very manageable,” senior Emily Hallenbeck said Monday, a day after the shutdown was put into place. “But it’s gotten a bit chaotic.”
MOST CLASSES ONLINE
SUNY Oneonta, enrollment 6,000, is a state college in Otsego County, roughly halfway between Albany and Binghamton and a half-hour from Cooperstown.
Over the summer, President Barbara Jean Morris and other campus leaders put together a plan to shift about 97% of classes completely online for the fall in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining labs and classes that required face-to-face instruction were to be held in larger spaces to cut down on density.
Despite the virus, SUNY Oneonta — like most colleges — chose to allow on-campus living and dining for the fall semester. The college did not, however, require all resident students to be tested for COVID-19 upon their return to campus, in contrast to nearby SUNY school Binghamton University and some other colleges.
Instead, students were told to self-quarantine at home for seven days before moving in. Once on campus, they were asked to follow a safety plan that included a commitment to social distancing and a daily online questionnaire to monitor for potential symptoms.
That changed Friday, when — after a couple dozen students tested positive — the college began testing all on-campus students, turning up more than 200 positives since.
Jillian Davis, a junior living on campus, said she had felt confident returning to school and was reassured by some of the campus rules — masks required, no visitors. But when the school’s COVID-19 cases swelled, she wondered why she and her classmates weren’t required to get tested prior to returning to campus.
”There are still so many unanswered questions that we have,” said Davis, who said she will remain on campus for the two-week quarantine but may consider returning home if it’s extended.
PARTYING STUDENTS SUSPENDED
When asked why SUNY Oneonta did not originally require students to be tested upon returning to campus, college spokeswoman Kim MacLeod pointed to the safety protocols students agreed to follow.
”Unfortunately, our rise in cases is the result of a few students not following the protocols they were asked to follow,” MacLeod wrote in an email.
Morris said Sunday most Oneonta students have been mindful of following the campus’ precautions and restrictions meant to discourage the spread of the virus.
”We know that it’s just a few that haven’t, and now we know the consequences of that,” she said.
Campus leaders, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras and even Gov. Andrew Cuomo have blamed large parties in part for the virus’ spread. Five Oneonta students and three student organizations have been suspended for hosting parties, according to SUNY.
The party issue isn’t limited to Oneonta.
Students, fraternities or student organizations at SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY Cobleskill, SUNY Geneseo and Marist College have all been suspended for hosting parties in the COVID-19 era. At SUNY New Paltz, a student tested positive after playing pick-up basketball.
”We understand people want to party,” Malatras said Sunday. “But individual responsibility plays into the collective good, so your individual actions have enormous consequences on everyone else in your college community.”
SUNY Oneonta is a major centerpiece and economic driver of the broader Oneonta community, a city home to roughly 14,000.
Cathi Abatemarco Wiltsey, a 46-year-old Oneonta resident, said she has “been through the full range of emotions as I’ve watched this unfold.”
Prior to the campus cluster, the Oneonta community had adopted a slogan: “Survive, then thrive.” Wiltsey said it was wonderful to see and be a part of.
”Now, I’m more than concerned,” she said. “I’m scared, frustrated, and angry. Everything we have worked for and maintained as a community seems at risk.”
Cuomo’s administration has deployed what it calls a COVID-19 testing “SWAT team” to Oneonta try to quickly identify whether the spread has reached the broader community.
Three temporary testing sites were opened Wednesday, Sept. 2, and set to be in operation through Saturday, Sept. 5. Rapid testing, with results available within 15 minutes, will be made available free of charge to any member of the Oneonta community. Residents can call 833-697-8764 for an appointment.
Whitley said she’s worried about the physical, emotional and economic health of her community. “And yes, that includes the college students,” she said.
”Am I angry that this has happened? Absolutely, but we can’t go back and undo it,” she said. “What the vast majority of people want to know is: What can we do to curtail it?”