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Opinion: Colleges and Universities in Upstate New York Should Not Be Open for In-Person Learning Right Now

On the heels of the news that SUNY Oneonta would have to shut down live classes for two weeks, the proof is in the pudding.

SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announcing that SUNY Oneonta would be suspending in-person classes for two weeks, following 105 students testing positive for COVID-19. (SUNY Oneonta)

I remember my first week at Connecticut College well. In between stressing about all the classes I’d signed up for and getting to know my two roommates, I was out and about all the time, enjoying my newly minted freedom from my parents’ rule. I was also drinking a fair amount of this red liquid out of recycling bins, and it’s entirely possible that someone passed me a cigarette-looking thing that I may have inhaled into my lungs. I went to dances and dorm parties and DJed events and tented talks and almost nightly had get-togethers in the common area of my new dorm building with hall mates and upperclassmen. And then I had classes, packed to the gills with students, a professor pacing up and down the aisles. In short, it was impossible for me to be socially distanced from anybody, nor did I want to be. A big, unavoidable part of college is nearness. You need it not only to be properly educated, but also to begin wrapping your head around the world at large. It’s the lessons we learn through nearness that make the “real world” eventually come into focus.

It didn’t at all surprise me then, that on August 30, the State University of New York’s (SUNY’s) new chancellor, Jim Malatras—who for months had flanked New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo as a special aide during his daily COVID-19 press briefings—announced that he, along with SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris, had decided to shut down SUNY Oneonta’s campus and go entirely virtual for two weeks after 105 students tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. (To put that into perspective, SUNY Oneonta’s total enrollment is 6,543 students, not including faculty and staff.) This just weeks after students had been invited back on campus—and days after in-person classes had started up again. Additionally, five students and three campus organizations were suspended, and there was the possibility that more suspensions could take place in the coming days. The reason? These students and organizations had apparently not been following the university’s strict COVID guidelines and due to that fact, there had been an increase in cases on campus.

Now, I’d like to think that the average twentysomething is a responsible, law-abiding citizen, who cares deeply about the safety and health of his or her fellow students. But were he or she plied with, say, the gift of newfound freedom, a new group of friends, several alcoholic beverages and dribs and drabs of other substances (for what it’s worth, SUNY Oneonta has long been nicknamed “Stoneonta”)—and then asked to follow stringent campus guidelines, many of which mirrored the ones he or she had just shed from leaving his or her parents’ house for the first time ever—it’s safe to say that rules were bound to be broken. Also, given that the last time I was in Downtown Saratoga Springs roughly 50 percent of the people I walked by weren’t wearing PPE (and some of those that were were doing the below-the-nose or chinstrap trick), I would venture a guess that not every college-aged kid on SUNY Oneonta’s campus is complying with that rule when ambulatory.

Back in July, when I was editing an opinion piece by one of Saratoga Living‘s interns—a rising senior at Skidmore College—on what it would be like returning to campus in August, I couldn’t help but be skeptical of the college’s plan of attack. I read through it again and again, thinking, How could bringing kids back to campus for any amount of time—even with all of the safeguards in place (plexiglass barriers!) that state health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had decreed—not be a fool’s errand? Yes, I’m sensitive to the fact that many colleges are under extreme financial pressure right now—and some, including Skidmore, at least according to one widely shared study, might not survive the pandemic—but it’s asking too much of young people to attend college only to be placed inside a hermetically sealed bubble, with really just their education to focus on. College isn’t only about studying and getting grades and that coveted diploma. It’s about interacting with others in enclosed spaces, having fun and sometimes, breaking the rules. Hell, even The Dalai Lama has said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

By no means am I condoning the behavior of the students and organizations that were suspended at SUNY Oneonta. Exposing fellow classmates to a potentially deadly virus isn’t just run-of-the-mill bad, it’s James Bond villain bad. But if there’s really any finger to be pointed in this situation, it’s at the school itself for thinking that an academic institution could contain a highly contagious, deadly virus that has already felled more than 175,000 people nationwide and more than 800,000 globally. Where’s the responsibility in that? And, look, don’t think a suspension teaches any sort of demonstrable lesson here. In fact, those five kids should be glad that they were suspended. At least now they don’t have to be around 6,538 other students who might be potential carriers. The only real hardship that waits them is having to contend with their parents’ dinner hour and locked liquor cabinet again.

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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