Colleges, universities must develop plan under the state’s reopening guidance then submit for review

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ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the state will soon issue guidance to colleges and universities when it comes to in-person instruction and on-campus housing for the fall semester.

“We still need more data between now and September to make a definitive determination, but we want to make sure we’re starting to prepare plans for K-12,” the Governor said. “We’re doing the same with college guidance.”

Cuomo said colleges and universities must develop a plan under the state’s guidance and then submit those plans for review and audit.

“This is going to take a lot of time and work, so time is of the essence,” said Fred Kowal, the president of United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents 37,000 SUNY employees. He said the union supports reopening campuses in the fall, but only with strict measures in place to keep everyone safe. 

He said the “core issues” include:

  • mandatory and recurring COVID-19 testing for all;
  • enacting methods for contact tracing and isolation;
  • stringent social distancing requirements;
  • and a directive for students and employees to wear face coverings when in direct contact with others.

Kowal said state funding will be needed to allow campuses to enact these precautions.

“We’ve had conversations with SUNY, and they’re aware that this is a very expensive proposition, but a life is priceless,” said Kowal.

He added that the CARES Act and the HEROES Act were intended to support educational institutions that have had to take on more costs because of COVID-19, so he’s hoping they can get some funding from those programs. 

Kowal told NEWS10 ABC that some of the employees represented by the union should have the option to continue to work remotely. He said these workers may be high-risk or live with high-risk family members.

On the other hand, he said there are many professors who are anxious to get back on campus.

“They teach in programs that are absolutely hands on, in laboratories, or in the field where they have to be present,” said Kowal.

Kowal said, based on the variety of preferences and the overall logistics when it comes to physical distancing in a classroom, he said they would undoubtedly be looking at some sort of hybrid approach of in-person and remote learning. 

“Yeah, I just don’t think it’s possible to go back to full in-class participation, there’s just no way,” he said. He said he thinks everyone will need to grow accustomed to restructuring education until there’s a vaccine or a cure that is shown to work.

“A number of students have hesitancy about that [online learning]. It is not the best learning environment, and to put it bluntly, we know there are families who would say this is not what I’m paying for. I’m paying for a campus experience,” said Kowal.

The issues surrounding dorms is also a top concern. Kowal said campuses are exploring a number of options, including every student getting their own room. That option, however, would significantly cut down the residential population.

“Unfortunately, so much of SUNY is funded by tuition and fees. Not having those students on campus can create financial difficulties, exacerbating what’s already happening with budgets,” said Kowal. 

That option may also mean that larger campuses may have to consider putting their students up in nearby hotels.

They have also discussed treating the suites in residence halls as a “family unit”. So if one student in the suite tests positive for COVID-19, they can isolate the entire suite and keep everyone quarantined together. He said residence halls should also be off-limits to all but students and staff living and working there.

As for dining halls, Kowal said they could very well transform that into a take-out type approach. 

Kowal said many campuses have also proposed the idea of shifting the semester schedule so they could be done with in-class instruction by Thanksgiving.  For condensing purposes, the colleges and universities would begin classes before Labor Day weekend and eliminate fall break. That would also prevent students from unnecessarily leaving and returning to campus. 

“Then do final exams and the last week or so virtually. That’s what we’re hearing pretty consistently from proposed plans,” said Kowal. He acknowledged that online final exams will present its own set of challenges and concerns.

“This will be a really difficult thing to pull off and so I’m eager to see what the particulars are in that regard,” said Kowal. 

Kowal said he hopes that UUP and SUNY will continue to work closely as guidelines are ironed out. He said the union needs to be consulted in the process because, while they understand they’re all working in a crisis, they still have the legal rights to stand up to administration and tell them certain options are off limits because they potentially violate a contract.

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