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'It's disheartening': Spike in campus Covid-19 cases causes concern

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Covid-19 at college campuses

Students head into the library as Niagara University holds its first day of classes on Aug. 24.

College faculty and administrators across Western New York returned to classes in the past 10 days, hopeful that they would be able to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and have at least some on-campus instruction.

But ominous signs are raising anxiety levels and concerns as reported cases of Covid-19 continue to head in the wrong direction.

• SUNY Fredonia on Thursday morning reported 42 active novel coronavirus cases, up from 22 the day before, with 90 students in quarantine.

• The University at Buffalo was at 80 cumulative cases (78 in the previous 14 days) as of Thursday night, shooting up from 46 yesterday.

• And SUNY Buffalo State was at 21 cases, also as of Wednesday.

"It's disheartening to see the numbers rise every day so dramatically," said Christopher Taverna, an information technology training specialist at Fredonia and president of its United University Professions union chapter.

The growth in Covid-19 cases at campuses in this area comes as SUNY Oneonta announced Thursday that it was shutting down in-person classes for the remainder of the fall semester after 389 people at the college tested positive for the virus since Aug. 24.

Faculty, students and administrators are struggling at the beginning of an unusual semester that's taking place in the middle of an international pandemic.

"They're already exhausted and the semester just started," said Frederick Floss, president of the UUP chapter at SUNY Buffalo State and chair of its economics and finance department.

Floss was referring to faculty who've had to reconfigure their course materials to teach some or all of their classes online and to students who are adjusting to taking classes remotely while feeling separated from classmates and teachers and with inconsistent access to the required technology.

So far, no Western New York college or university has, like SUNY Oneonta, had to shift to fully online courses. But several are on track if positive coronavirus tests don't begin to ease.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said schools must shift to online-only courses for two weeks if the number of positive Covid-19 cases reaches 100 or a number equivalent to 5% of the campus population.

Colleges here and across the country have blamed large, off-campus gatherings for much of the rise in positive tests. SUNY Fredonia on Tuesday suspended 13 students for an off-campus party, where several attendees later tested positive for the virus.

Classes started on Aug. 24 at Fredonia although students started arriving on campus shortly before that, Taverna said. He said he has seen good compliance on campus with social distancing and mask wearing, even when students and staff are outside.

"While the majority are following the rules, unfortunately there are people who don't," Taverna said.

Data reported by UB on Thursday showed that 74 of its cases were students living off campus. Two cases were students living on campus, and there are two known employee cases among it's current confirmed positive cases.

The university said the affected students are isolating at their homes as urged by the Erie County Health Department, whose contact tracers are working with UB staff to find anyone who was in close contact with the patients.

The school is urging students who live in University Heights to stay away from house parties, which are a common occurrence on weekends in the neighborhood. UB officials also have warned fraternities and sororities based in the Heights against hosting parties.

Students can face campus discipline for violating the university's Covid-19 compliance policy, and both Mayor Byron Brown and County Executive Mark Poloncarz have warned of the consequences if students host large gatherings that violate public health regulations.

“We are monitoring this situation very closely and taking steps to mitigate the spread both on and off campus,” A. Scott Weber, UB’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said in the statement.

Floss, the SUNY Buffalo State professor and union president, said faculty and staff at the college pushed for thorough testing as students arrived on campus and for the college administration to accommodate requests to work from home from employees who have health concerns.

He said the college has cooperated with faculty but the process of preparing to reopen for the fall semester has been challenging for everyone.

He estimated that 75% or 80% of SUNY Buffalo State classes are set to be taught online this fall, with the exception being certain courses requiring lab work. He said he expects online instruction to be the norm well into the spring semester, even though it has its limitations for teachers and students.

"This is just the beginning," Floss said, "and I think that's a prudent step."

UB spokesman John Della Contrada, in an email late Thursday, said the university is aware of the state Department of Health's guideline that all colleges and universities in the state must transition from all in-person to remote learning once 100 members of the on-campus population – inclusive of students, faculty and staff – test positive for Covid-19 within a 14-day period. Della Contrada noted that according to the state's guidance, only 40 of the 78 active cases at UB can be characterized as on-campus cases. So the remaining 38 would not count toward the 100-cases metric.

Della Contrada said that new case data received by the university late Thursday from the Erie County Department of Health shows that, based on ZIP code, it would appear that the vast majority of the new and active student cases of Covid-19 are again in the University Heights neighborhood.  

News Staff Reporters Keith McShea and Harold McNeil contributed to this article.

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The University at Buffalo has confirmed 22 more Covid-19 cases among students living off campus, President Satish Tripathi reported in a message to the university community Tuesday. Tripathi added that next week UB will begin random surveillance testing for Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff who have personal interactions on campus.

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