The coronavirus has afflicted colleges across New York, but so far SUNY Oneonta holds the dubious distinction of having the state’s worst on-campus outbreak.
The university has confirmed over 670 positive cases, or more than a tenth of the student population, since it reopened this month. The high percentage of infected students makes the campus outbreak one of the most notable in the country, at a time when colleges have become hot spots for new infections.
The rest of the semester will take place remotely, as SUNY officials determine what went wrong.
Here’s what you need to know:
How it happened
The number of cases at SUNY Oneonta climbed so high because of what students, parents and staff members charge was a lax screening and monitoring system for people arriving at the university, followed by a series of off-campus gatherings.
Unlike some schools in the SUNY system, Oneonta did not require students to have a negative virus test in order to come to campus. The school asked students to fill out health questionnaires, quarantine for one to two weeks once they arrived, wear masks on campus and practice social distancing.
Jim Malatras, the SUNY system’s chancellor, said that gatherings were responsible for the rapid spread of the virus, particularly some large parties that took place in off-campus housing. Smaller groups also got together on campus without proper precautions.
A photo of one gathering, which showed a group of infected, unmasked students partying in an isolation dorm, drew the ire of parents, students and officials.
Oneonta’s reopening plan was approved by SUNY
Colleges in New York State were charged with developing plans for reopening that complied with state health department regulations, but they were given a lot of leeway. Each of the 64 schools in the SUNY system developed its own plan, some stricter than others.
After the Oneonta outbreak, Mr. Malatras announced that surveillance testing is required at all SUNY schools and that next semester each school will have to develop a testing plan. Mr. Malatras, who became chancellor at the end of August, also said that SUNY will conduct a review of what happened at Oneonta. He said he was not sure why testing was not mandated at all schools in the system.
Neither were many of the university’s students, like Jacob Adler, a senior.
“The administration expected many things from the students that went undelivered, but instead of reacting in a way that was proactive, they chose to downplay the severity,” Mr. Adler said.
My colleague Amanda Rosa, who wrote about the outbreak, said that such sentiments were common.
“Every student I’ve spoken to acknowledges that partying during a pandemic is irresponsible, but they recognize that the school should have — and could have — done more to prevent the spread,” Ms. Rosa said.
SUNY Oneonta is not alone
Of course, there is no perfect reopening plan, as anyone who has been following colleges across the country can attest.
Colleges have become hot spots for the disease, like hospitals, nursing homes and meatpacking plants were early in the pandemic. A New York Times survey of over 1,600 schools last week indicated that there had been more than 88,000 cases of the coronavirus on campuses since the pandemic began, and at least 60 deaths. Most of the people who died were college staff members.
Testing protocols vary between schools, but off-campus housing and parties are frequent spreaders of infection. The coronavirus causes other complications, like mandatory quarantines for unprepared students, who are sometimes given questionable food while confined to a room, and the unenviable choice between ignoring dangerous behavior and snitching on their peers.
SUNY Oneonta’s experience could be a learning opportunity for other schools about just how cautious they need to be as they reopen.
“It’s a textbook example of how quickly the coronavirus can spread,” Ms. Rosa said.
From The Times
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The Mini Crossword: Here is today’s puzzle.
What we’re reading
About 70,000 New Yorkers are struggling with long-term health issues caused by the coronavirus. [The City]
Some parents say New York City’s first day of remote-learning classes was plagued by technical issues and hackers. [N.Y. Post]
Dozens of streets around the city will now close on weekdays to vehicle traffic so that restaurants and pedestrians can use the space. [N.Y. Daily News]
And finally: Auctioning art, for the museum’s sake
The Brooklyn Museum will soon part with 12 works — including paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot — to raise funds for the care of its collection.
Not long ago, such a sale could have led to complaints, if not sanctions. But it is now acceptable since regulations governing the sale of work from museum collections were loosened, an indication of just how financially debilitating the pandemic has been for cultural institutions. On Wednesday, the Guggenheim Museum announced an 11 percent reduction of its staff, even as it prepared to reopen next month.
My colleague Robin Pogrebin reports that selling work from a museum, or “deaccessioning,” to pay for operating costs has long been proscribed by the Association of Art Museum Directors. Normally, proceeds from the sale of art can only be used to acquire more artwork, but the precarious financial situation of many museums led the association to relax its rules.
In April, the association announced that it would not punish museums that “use the proceeds from deaccessioned art to pay for expenses associated with the direct care of collections” until the middle of April 2022. The Brooklyn Museum is the first major institution in the United States to sell work during the two-year window.
The 12 pieces are a minuscule fraction of the museum’s collection of more than 160,000 objects, but choosing the right ones to sell is tricky.
“Can we still tell the story of that artist? Can we still tell the story of that moment? Can we still have the kinds of conversations that we want to without damaging our ability to do any of this?” said Lisa Small, the Brooklyn Museum’s senior curator of European art. “If the answer is yes, after a lot of research and thought, then that becomes a good candidate for deaccession.”
Of course, giving up any of the pieces that make up a museum’s raison d’être is never an easy decision.
“This is something that is hard for us to do,” said Anne Pasternak, the museum’s director. “But it’s the best thing for the institution and the longevity and care of the collections.”
It’s Thursday — stick around.
Metropolitan Diary: Special delivery
I live on Sixth Street, and I often get mail that should have been delivered to Sixth Avenue.
I usually just walk down the block and drop the misdirected mail in the mail slot at the Sixth Avenue address. This has happened so many times that I’ve met and traded phone numbers with the older woman who lives there.
Now when a large package arrives that is meant for the Sixth Avenue building and doesn’t fit the slot, I call first before walking over.
When I get there, I see the woman waiting for me and I wave. She lowers a canvas bag attached to a rope out a third-story window. In the bag is a key to the front door.
I unlock the door and place the package in the vestibule. I then return the key to the bag, which the woman lifts back up.
Then we wave goodbye. There is always another time.
— Richard Stoller
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