Oneonta, N.Y. - It's been a long five months since SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras rushed to SUNY Oneonta in late August for what was, at the time, one of the nation's first COVID outbreaks on a college campus.
That outbreak of more than 700 COVID cases on SUNY Oneonta's campus, mostly among students, led to Malatras shutting the campus down in early September.
Now he says he is confident in-person classes can resume, "I think all of the ingredients are now here, now let's implement them and see how it goes."
Students are returning to campus this weekend as virtual classes begin on Monday for the spring semester, and in-person classes are scheduled to finally resume the following Monday after a four month break.
On Sunday, Chancellor Malatras took a tour of the school's new COVID testing site inside the school's Alumni Field House.
Back to school this semester is a two-pronged approach.
First, the COVID testing is in place. Every student, faculty member and staff member must get tested once a week.
Second, the firm disciplinary measures are now in place for students that violate the code of conduct as far as COVID guidelines go, including no parties.
Malatras says the hard work by school officials to get to this point has paid off and the school can reopen, "We put together a really tough comprehensive plan for keeping our campus is open. Mandatory testing on all of our college campuses, regular screening of all of our students, masks have to be worn at all times no matter if you’re socially distant or not. Uniform compliance documents. Unfortunately some students early on violated the rules which led to the spread, we have sort of gotten rid of that problem by uniform compliance."
Back in early September when the outbreak of more than 700 confirmed cases on campus happened, Malatras said the outbreak was due to on-campus and off-campus parties, "Comes down to personal responsibility. You can put all the rules in place but if people are unwilling to follow the rules, the positivity rate goes right through the roof."
Even student representatives are hopeful that the threat of expulsion will be enough to keep even the youngest of students from doing the wrong thing that could lead to this campus getting shut down yet again.
The school's External Affairs personnel have been talking with students as they arrive back on campus.
Junior Gabrielle Cecere says she's heard of many students being talked to, "Specifically the ones off campus, in order to say 'hey just so you know something is going to happen if you go and do what you wanna do'. Just having those protocols in place is a big deal in order to prevent."
Finally, Chancellor Malatras says there is concern when it comes to the new strains of COVID that have been found recently in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, which are believed to be much more contagious that the original virus.
Malatras says the fact that the UK strain has been found in the U.S. including here in New York State is definitely a concern, but he says the saliva test being used by the SUNY system is the best in the world, according to the CDC, "The SUNY Upstate Medical Saliva Test picks up all strains, so the good thing is we'll be able to know if we have those strains on our campus because we can pick up those under our test. We are working with the State Health Department to see how that’s going. Right now I think they’ve been updating it, some something like 25 to 30 people in the State of New York who have tested positive for those strains, but that is something to monitor for sure."
Again, virtual classes begin on Monday at SUNY Oneonta, and in-person classes resume a week from now on Monday, February 1st.