More than 6,800 SUNY Cortland students will roll out of bed Wednesday morning and get ready to go to class. They won’t have to roll far.
SUNY Cortland’s campus will be closed to all but remote learning because of a spike in coronavirus cases. Jim Malatras, the State University of New York chancellor, announced the shift Monday evening after meeting with college leaders in Cortland.
“Many of the cases are coming from off-campus students” said Malatras, who was named chancellor Aug. 21. However, he added, it didn’t come from large parties, as happened at SUNY Oswego. “There’s no clear issue from off-campus activities.”
The shift follows the report Monday afternoon of 101 active cases since Sept. 26, the start of a two-week period in which SUNY campuses must keep the number of active cases below 100 or revert to remote-only learning for at least two weeks. It reported 28 new cases over the weekend, bringing to 86 the number of active cases it must deal with, suggesting 15 new cases Monday and the 237 cases diagnosed since the beginning of the semester.
That compares with the SUNY-wide totals of 974 total cases, 369 since Sept. 26.
In the prior two-week period, SUNY Cortland reported 81 cases of COVID-19, approaching the 100-case limit that would force the school to revert to remote learning.
“It’s going in the wrong direction,” Malatras said, and the two-week “pause” will give the college and city officials a chance to nail down and source and ways to restrict the spread.
SUNY Cortland is not the first campus hit this hard by coronavirus: SUNY Oneonta reverted to remote-only for the entire semester in the first week of September after nearly 700 students contracted COVID-19 in just a few days. SUNY Oswego reopened to in-person learning on Monday following a two-week closure and more than 100 confirmed campuses.
SUNY Cortland also announced new sanctions last week for students who violate isolation or quarantine, attend or host prohibited gatherings or violate face-covering or social-distancing protocols that can include suspension, a year of online-only learning or even expulsion. Those disciplinary measures are part of a SUNY-wide policy of increasing discipline.
However, college President Erik Bitterbaum said last week that closing the campus, which would also suspend non-essential services, would not have as big an effect on the college and students as closing last spring, the first time it canceled in-person classes.
“Only about 40% of our classes are in-person,” Bitterbaum said then. All students living on campus will be required to stay on campus. Their dining hall meals will be grab-and-go. Athletics and other extracurricular activities have already been curtailed.
Off-campus students could leave and return to their homes, but the school is discouraging that, said Fred Pierce, the college’s director of communications. Bitterbaum added those students are being encouraged to reduce their circulation in the community.
Following the two-week period, the Cortland County Health Department and the state Department of Health would evaluate the school’s effort to contain the spread before allowing in-person classes to resume or implementing other measures to contain the virus.
Testing has stepped up since the return to classes as the college has been trying to test 1,000 people a week, Bitterbaum said. It showed little incidence of the virus in on-campus students.
“I think they’re finally getting the message,” he said Monday. “If we learn of misbehavior, we will come down hard.”
Fewer than 100 students have faced disciplinary action, including interim suspensions and dismissals. “Off-campus behavior clearly has to change,” Bitterbaum said.
But in the meantime, 2,000 students involved through internships, volunteer activities and other efforts will pause those, too.
City police Chief F. Michael Catalano and Mayor Brian Tobin said police will watch for student gatherings in violation of the state’s 50-person limit, set by executive order, but they do not plan to reinstate a 25-person limit the city enacted at the start of the semester.
“It has to be a certain amount of personal responsibility,” Tobin said.
The challenge, Malatras said, is to pin down how the virus is spreading. At SUNY Oswego, it came from several large, off-campus parties. But that’s not the case in Cortland. The two-week pause will give officials a chance to investigate.
“Is there one thing happening? Are there multiple things happening?” Malatras asked. “You can see how quickly just a handful of people can turn things on their head.”