As car after car drove up Graham Avenue in Cortland on Thursday, SUNY Cortland junior Miriam Fink gave directions for families moving their students into DeGroat and Cheney halls.
The unofficial start of the college semester, students began the first of four days to move into residence halls and off-campus apartments ahead of Monday’s first day of classes.
The 2020-21 academic year features many changes and shifts from what was planned.
The fall semester last year started in-person before moving to remote only at the end of the semester.
Student gatherings were limited to those in immediate living spaces as well to prevent potential spread of the virus.
Concerns were raised by city residents in February following a large off-campus party involving more than 70 students who were maskless.
As the school year gets underway again, new changes like vaccination mandates have been implemented to protect students and halt the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19.
The mandate additionally gives way for students to have a college experience more like 2019 than 2020 or even early 2021.
Students, though, return at a time when positive cases are increasing in Cortland County, according to state data.
Of the cases tested as part of a rolling seven-day average, 8.1% tested positive Thursday, according to state data. That is 24 confirmed cases. Those numbers are up from 1.9% and four confirmed cases, respectively, on July 28.
“We are concerned about the spread but we are optimistic” for a more normal, pre-COVID experience that composes a college school year, said Fred Pierce, the director of SUNY Cortland’s communications office.
The biggest change as college students return for the fall semester is the COVID-19 vaccine, Pierce said.
Following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the university has mandated that all students become fully vaccinated by Sept. 27.
“That is really a game changer,” Pierce said.
Tompkins Cortland Community College, which is also a part of the State University of New York system, will have the same vaccination mandate as SUNY Cortland, according to a
news release from the college.
Students at either college who fail to become fully vaccinated by Sept. 27 will be de-registered from the college, required to leave on-campus housing and unable to attend in-person classes.
“We didn’t have the ability to do that before the FDA approval,” Pierce said.
The university had previously set Sept. 11 as the date for students to be fully vaccinated but the FDA approval pushed back that deadline to allow for more time for students to get vaccinated.
The university could prevent students from moving into residence halls and being involved in athletics, but the FDA approval adds legal support for the university now, he said.
Pierce did say that if students were close to becoming fully vaccinated but had their second dose schedule a few days after Sept. 27, the university would still allow the students to attend.
What won’t work, he said, is if students get their first vaccine in late September, if they are getting the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
“That’s not what we’re looking for,” Pierce said.
Students who aren’t fully vaccinated while taking classes will have to be tested once a week, do daily symptom screenings and won’t be able to participate in activities like sports or be able to use the Student Life Center, he said.
All students, regardless of vaccination status, will have to wear a mask indoors.
Fully vaccinated students, though, will only need to wear a mask outdoors when social distancing is not possible.
Students who are not fully vaccinated will have to wear a mask at all times — even outdoors — until they are fully vaccinated, Pierce said.
It is because of these safeguards that the university will be able to return to an experience more similar to pre-pandemic life — with in-person classes, campus activities and sporting events — than what happened in the early part and end of 2020.
“We feel good that we will be able to provide the kind of experience we want to provide,” Pierce said.
A MORE NORMAL SEMESTER
Students like Fink are ready to get back to a more normal experience, or a college experience resembling something more pre-pandemic than the last year and a half.
“I’m really excited to see more student interaction this semester but we’re still going to have to be careful,” she said. “Classes are opening up, we’re gonna have in-person classes which is really exciting but we’re all just going to have to keep ourselves safe, make the right decisions and hopefully everything goes well this semester.”
Fink supports the university’s vaccine mandate in protecting the health of students but questioned the mask wearing.
“My only concern is why do vaccinated students have to wear masks?,” she said. “What was the reason for having students get vaccinated if we’re gonna have to wear masks?”
That said, Fink is fully vaccinated and, as a residence assistant and student-employee in the athletics department, follows all the university’s COVID policies to set an example for other students.
That, she said, is the best way to prevent the spread of the Delta variant.
“I got vaccinated,” she said. “And that’s all I can do at the moment. Just follow state mandates and get vaccinated.”
Having experienced a typical year her freshman year until March 2020 and an ever-changing sophomore year during 2020-21, Fink is looking to get back to a more normal semester, including covering games as a sports reporter for the university’s athletics department, which she wasn’t able to do last year as sporting events were canceled until the spring.
CONCERNS AND DISCIPLINE
While coming back to fully in-person classes, that doesn’t mean, though, the university isn’t concerned about the risk of spread coming from the Delta variant of the coronavirus, Pierce said.
In February, four students were suspended after Cortland police responded to an off-campus house for a party involving more than 75 people who were maskless.
The university is still concerned about the off-campus student’s interactions and gatherings, but having students be vaccinated will help reduce the risk of spread, Pierce said.
In terms of discipline, education will take precedence over suspension.
“We discovered that mass suspensions didn’t have much of an impact” last year, he said. “A lot of students weren’t going to classes but still living in Cortland.”
Before the vaccine was available for college-age students, gatherings of people not from the same off-campus house would lead to a suspension, Pierce said, as a means to prevent students from potentially spreading the virus.
This year the potential still exists of spreading the virus though the focus will be on educating students on reducing the risk of spreading.
Students who are disciplined for gathering will be treated similarly to those facing an alcohol violation — taking classes and writing reflection papers that force the students to understand why what they did was wrong.
Pierce was unsure if enforcement of off-campus housing would be changed by either SUNY Cortland university police or the Cortland Police Department.
Cortland Mayor Brian Tobin said city code enforcement agents have been going around the city letting off-campus housing residents know what the expectations are from the city.
“It’s not the Cortland Police Department’s job to stop the spread,” he said. “It’s all of our job to make sure there isn’t a spread.”
A NEW FAKE ID?
Fake IDs have been a mainstay with college students under 21 for decades to buy alcohol. But this semester, according to news media reports, a new kind of fake ID has arisen as colleges and universities have mandated COVID-19 vaccines: fake COVID-19 vaccination record cards.
Marketplaces have grown for students to buy fake cards that falsely show students being vaccinated when they haven’t, according to an Aug. 9 article by the Associated Press.
To counter this, SUNY has developed a verification system that links directly to the state COVID-19 vaccination database to confirm verification of a student’s vaccination status, Pierce said.
Out-of-state students will have to submit paper copies of their vaccination record card by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and each is reviewed, he said.
Pierce said he was aware of students submitting fake COVID-19 ID cards across the country but wasn’t aware of any incidents at SUNY Cortland.
“We hope we don’t see it,” he said. “We hope our students are smarter than that.”
Those who do submit a fake card will be facing a federal crime, he said.
The penalty for such, involving misrepresenting the official seal of a federal agency like the CDC — which is present on COVID-19 vaccine cards — could result in a prison sentence up to five years or a fine of $5,000, according to news media reports.
A PART OF THE COMMUNITY
In Tom Terwilliger’s experience, SUNY Cortland students have been very compliant with all COVID-19 protocols.
He should know. As the owner of the Red Jug Pub in Cortland, more than half of the 42 employees are university students, he said. The pub is also a favorite of university students to visit.
The vaccine mandate doesn’t change his view of SUNY Cortland students complying with health rules.
While there is always a risk of spread with an influx of people coming into the community, Terwilliger said that SUNY Cortland students are a part of the community like the residents.
“They live here,” he said. “This is part of their town, too.”
When classes shifted to online only in late 2020, the pub lost a lot of its business, but support from locals and off-campus students staying in Cortland helped keep it open, Terwilliger said.
As students come back, he said that he hopes the college understands that students need social lives and that locals don’t treat them as outsiders.
“They are a vital part of our vibrant community, for sure,” Terwilliger said.