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SUNY's positivity rate shows COVID-19 can be controlled, chancellor says
It¡¯s been a fall semester like no other, but SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras is feeling good about where the state university?stands.
¡°If we were a state, we¡¯d (have)?the lowest positivity of a state in the nation,¡± Malatras said Thursday morning. ¡°By and large, our students have done a phenomenal job. Our staff, our faculty and our campus leadership have done a phenomenal job of bringing back students in a way that's safe.¡±
Malatras joined Purchase College President Milagros Pe?a and Westchester Community College President Belinda Miles?for a virtual discussion organized?by the Business Council of Westchester about?the steps the nation¡¯s largest public higher education system has taken to continue?educating in a pandemic.
A lot of SUNY's strategy comes down to aggressive, campus-by-campus surveillance of the coronavirus.
SUNY is currently in the process of ¡°testing out¡± about 140,000 students on its 64 campuses. SUNY?mandated in October that every student using on-campus facilities would have to test negative within 10 days of leaving campus for Thanksgiving break.
¡°Let's just test everyone on the way out,¡± Malatras said. ¡°It makes sure that we're not silently bringing this virus home, and our students don't want to bring the virus home¡.They see what's going on in the rest of the country.¡±
That mandate, Malatras said, was a natural extension of the testing surveillance policy the SUNY system has used to keep its campuses open through the fall semester.?
More than 485,000 tests have been performed on SUNY campuses this semester, he said, more than some small states. The positivity rate on?those tests has been?about 0.5%.?
Testing has been ramped up by an innovation at SUNY Upstate Medical University, which developed a saliva test for COVID-19, approved by the FDA, that students can administer themselves.?
SUNY?can process about 200,000 tests a week, and should be able to offer its?services to other organizations, such as K-12 school districts, once the pre-Thanksgiving testing?is complete. SUNY schools will not open the spring semester until Feb. 1, later than usual.
¡°We've been a little selfish about it,¡± Malatra said. ¡°(But)?as soon as we go home for Thanksgiving, there's a couple of months before the spring semester. We will have a lot more capacity. We're going to be offering that up to other institutions that want to be part of the larger response.¡±
Malatras stressed that media coverage around the nation of college students attending large, maskless parties and disregarding rules does?not represent the majority of young adults.?
¡°We've had some of that too, but by and large....SUNY students have done a remarkable job," he said. "The positivity rate alone demonstrates that.¡±
When the spring semester begins, SUNY?plans?to test everyone returning to campus. Most campuses will?offer?¡°wellness days¡± off from classes rather than a full spring break to avoid student travel.?
If students have?parties at school, there will be consequences.?
¡°They call me Chancellor No Fun, because we have really strong and stiff penalties for those individuals who have violated codes of conduct by partying and doing those types of things,¡± Malatras said. ¡°It's not just a code of conduct for the school. You're violating a public health order. This is serious.¡±
An important part of keeping SUNY healthy is addressing mental health needs. Malatras said he has heard from student representatives that?social isolation is taking its toll. SUNY has worked to expand access to mental health services this year.
¡°The isolation component of coming back to college has been significant, whether they are remote learners at (Westchester Community College)?and they're at home, or they're in a reduced capacity at Purchase," he said.?
Overall, he said, SUNY¡¯s foray into limited?in-person learning has demonstrated what?K-12 districts have seen since September.?¡°What we've seen on campuses in college and K-12 is that we¡¯re not the vectors of spread, and that's heartening,¡± he said. ¡°That shows that you can control the virus, if you closely monitor.¡±
Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.