COVID what’s next: Colleges prepare, students wait for what happens this fall

Peter D. Kramer Justin Murphy
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Editor's Note: COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. In an ongoing series of stories, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and why we remain vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes harder in the fall. 

The coronavirus took New York’s college campuses by surprise in early March, with administrators looking to Albany and other schools for guidance on how and when to close and how to shift to remote learning.

Within weeks hundreds of thousands of homes became remote college classrooms.

Before the state permits campuses to reopen this fall, each institution must draft detailed plans for how to keep their communities — faculty, staff and students — safe. They  must include elaborate Plan B scenarios, how they'll pivot to remote learning if a predicted second wave of the virus takes hold in New York state.

Here’s a sampling of what worked, what didn’t and what should be done if COVID-19 comes back to campus this fall. In the spirit of the spring semester, it's graded pass/fail, with the plans for the fall still incomplete.


Hunter College in Manhattan.

Connecting with students

At Hunter College in Manhattan, part of the City University of New York system, President Jennifer Raab said counselors took active steps to ensure students weren't lost in the move to digital learning.

"We moved mental health counseling, both individuals and groups, online and then advising online," Raab said. "It's been one of the most successful things because that individualized attention, somehow the advisers have been able to increase the loads of students they work with. ... We didn't want to lose a student in this transition."

Matthew Crow, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and presiding officer of the faculty body there, said the school succeeded at "maintaining a personal connection to the students, and that’s tough to do in the electronic environment. ... Even though it took a lot of extra effort, the institution bent over backward to maintain as much of that personal connection as possible."

Maintaining class schedule

Fordham University journalism major Taylor Masi of Port Chester on break from her job as a waitress Aug. 3, 2020 in Greenwich, Conn.

Taylor Masi, a junior journalism major at Fordham University, said she missed sitting in the front row of class and participating but appreciated Fordham's remote schedule.

“I liked that Fordham kept basically the same times for its classes," she said. "You wake up at the same time you would and you're face to face with your teacher and your classmates on Zoom. It was more interactive than I thought it would be compared to all my other friends at their schools.”

Spring break timing

Dr. Michael A. Baston, speaks after his Inauguration as the Seventh President of Rockland Community College in the school's Cultural Arts Theater on Sept.12, 2018.

Michael Baston, president of SUNY Rockland, said colleges got a minor assist from their calendars. The outbreak arrived just as many schools were nearing spring break.

The short break allowed them to release students and close campuses, getting a bit of breathing room to gather themselves and re-evaluate things. 

"We used all of that spring break extension to get all our faculty trained up and get them the resources that they needed to do this work remotely," he said. "I think that was a really big plus."

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The Quad on SUNY Rockland's main campus, facing the Academic II building.

Allison Potischman learned that SUNY Rockland was canceling classes — and starting spring break a week early — via an email from Baston at 7:45 p.m. March 15, a Sunday night when she was getting ready for her Monday morning classes.

“It just felt like it was sprung on us out of nowhere and we didn't have much time to prepare,” the 19-year-old from Pomona, Rockland County, said. “That last time I went to class, I had no idea it was going to be my last day at class on campus.”

At Fordham, Masi had even less notice, via email and a schoolwide text.

Fordham University journalism major Taylor Masi of Port Chester on break from her job as a waitress Aug. 3, 2020 in Greenwich, Conn.

“The last day was Monday, March 9," Masi said. "At 9 a.m., we were about to go to our classes and they sent an email. 'We are closing for today, tomorrow and probably the rest of the week. You should pack some of your belongings. We'll be closed until March 23.'"

Masi didn't go back until May 17, and then it was only to clear out her dorm room at O'Hare Hall.

The communication breakdown included potentially critical notifications about contact tracing.

Payge Chebatar, 20, a senior at SUNY New Paltz in Ulster County, said she lost count of all the emails.

“As people reported getting (the virus), the school initially was sending out individual emails even multiple times a day as they got information about a student who lived here, a student who was a commuter or a teacher has reported they have it who was in these buildings.”

Crow, from Geneva, said Hobart and William Smith struggled to find a balance between sending out simple communications and providing some nuance to a changing situation.

"What I heard from students was, they’d hear one thing from their coach or their club leader or a staff person, then they’d get a communication from the president, then a professor would say something differently," he said.

Leaving campus

Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva is telling students to pack lightly for the fall semester in case the school has to suddenly close again.

Joyce Jacobsen, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said her staff has ended up spending a great deal of time helping students retrieve their belongings because the initial departure from campus was so rushed.

"The logistical issue of having everyone depart campus on short notice was challenging," she said. "If I’d known it was going to be so tightly closed down, I would have told the students to take all their stuff home for spring break."

Her guidance for students returning in the fall: pack lightly.

Chebatar, at New Paltz, said there was little monitoring when students were permitted to retrieve things from their dorms.

"There were students who came to get it and then, not but a day after they came to get it, they were like, 'Hey, by the way, I have symptoms,'” she said.

Incomplete: The fall semester

Remote learning strategies

Student feedback on remote learning in the spring was mixed.

Surveys of students at Bryant and Stratton College's campuses in New York and elsewhere showed an overwhelming majority of satisfaction with how courses were going. One third even said they'd want to continue some remote learning in the future.

"It never ceases to amaze me how our students can be flexible and adaptable," College President Fran Felser said.

Potischman at SUNY Rockland, on the other hand, said faculty were slow to catch on to remote learning.

“At first, I had less work than usual," she said. "Then, out of nowhere, it was just this huge outpouring of work, like everyone finally decided how they were going to do things at the same time. It was overwhelming.”

Nearly empty parking lots at Rockland Community College March 16, 2020.

With the benefit of the summer to plan, New York colleges and universities are confident they'll make a better showing in the fall when it comes to student learning.

On-campus logistics

Students walk to class at SUNY New Paltz campus on March 12, 2020.

Every college in New York is furiously adding pages to its reopening plan, covering everything from utensils in dining halls to seating arrangements in lecture halls and the sourcing of cleaning supplies — not to mention plans to scrap the plans, depending on how the virus progresses.

New Paltz's 81-page "New Paltz Forward" document outlines a mix of online and in-person classes in the fall, with faculty told to be “remote ready,” if the need arises.

Scenarios are laid out, a continuum from all in-person to a “mid-semester pivot” to all-remote.

“We will monitor our quarantine space capacity and rate of use and work with county health officials and SUNY in determining whether conditions have triggered the need to pivot to remote learning," the document reads. "If a pivot is warranted, quarantining students will be allowed to remain on campus, while non-quarantining students will be evacuated over a 72-hour period in coordination with student families, public transportation, state and local health officials.”

Fordham's reopening plan, Fordham Forward, is 32 pages of specific scenarios and safeguards. Masi has read it and has questions.

Fordham University's campus on Westchester Avenue

“They’re trying to separate us as much as possible, with a no-guest-policy for dorms and no inter-dorm interaction. If you live in a different building, you can only visit at this time of day, which kind of defeats the purpose. You can still get corona in those two hours of the day."

No matter how much planning is done, the success or failure of higher education this fall will hinge largely on how students and employees alike respond.

"It won’t be normal, so what about this is essential and worth preserving in any circumstance if it can be done safely and done well?" asked Crow, from Hobart and William Smith. "A big part of it will just be every person taking a bit of responsibility for the community on their shoulders."

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