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'Strain has been extraordinary' for colleges, universities during pandemic

Christine Riordan, president of Adelphi University, speaks about

Christine Riordan, president of Adelphi University, speaks about how COVID-19 has affected universities and students.   Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

A year after a frightening new virus abruptly forced students to flee campuses for remote instruction, COVID-19 is still upending college life in ways that could reshape how on-campus work gets done and how courses are taught.

Many Long Island students have not returned to in-person classes, while those on campuses remain bound by COVID-19 testing, periodic quarantines, mask wearing and social distancing. Parties are verboten, and isolation, anxiety and financial pressures have spiked demand for counseling and financial aid. Much of campus life, from clubs to concerts to career counseling services, remains virtual.

The scale of the disruption last spring was unprecedented. Within weeks, a crash transformation replaced the usual way of doing business, with a technologically complicated digital education and a remote workforce, all while students, faculty and staff endured the fear of infection and the trauma of loss.

"The strain has been extraordinary," Adelphi University President Christine Riordan said.

Through these challenges, colleges and universities largely have succeeded in containing the virus and dodged major drops in enrollment, they said. Despite millions of dollars in lost revenue, budget cuts, added expenses, and 300 layoffs and furloughs at five schools last spring, institutions predict they will recover. Most accepted millions in federal aid — from a low of $860,000 at Five Towns College in Dix Hills to a high of $19.7 million at Stony Brook University — in CARES Act funds last spring, with millions more arriving this academic year.

The psychological toll of social isolation may take time to recover from as well, administrators and students said.

Brianne Ledda, 22, of Miller Place, editor-in-chief at Stony Brook University’s The Statesman and a journalism major, said she stepped on campus this past year only a "handful of times."

"I just feel like I’m not as engaged with my classroom, my peers, my campus, my classmates," she said of remote instruction. "You are not in study groups, you are not in the library, you are just in your room. That might not be universal, but for a lot of people, it’s like that. I turned 21 and then went into quarantine."

Schools are hoping for a more normal fall semester, following wide-scale vaccinations and lower infection rates, while preparing to switch back to remote mode if necessary. Stony Brook just announced its May commencement ceremonies would take place outdoors on campus and in-person.

Administrators look back with pride on how quickly they adapted last spring and are gleaning lessons from an experience that could shape how education is delivered and university work is conducted.

"Higher ed has a reputation as being slow-moving and change-resistant, but in this instance, we proved quite nimble," Farmingdale State College President John S. Nader said.

"Some of the best creativity that I saw in my career I saw in the pandemic," Riordan said of the school’s faculty, students and staff. "I give them so much credit for their creativity and innovation and adaptability, both remote and in person. Agility and resilience were critical over this past year, and we saw it in so many examples across the campus and in so many ways."

Schools see potential online growth

The rapid infusion of technology and expertise in delivering coursework digitally has accelerated a trend toward more computer classes. Online schools, aimed at older students studying part time while they work and tend families, have seen success in growing enrollment, and established schools said they see this as an area of growth as well.

"I’ve been saying for 20 years that part-time graduate education would really welcome more online and remote courses," Hofstra University Provost Herman Berliner said. "It was already happening, but the timetable for that happening has been speeded up by the pandemic, and that is positive."

At schools such as Molloy College in Rockville Centre and Farmingdale State, noted for their technical and career-oriented programs, online courses that proved successful and online graduate courses likely will expand.

"Probably the worst thing we can do is think we can go back to March 2020 and think it will be the same," Molloy President James Lentini said. "We’ve made changes. … We have gotten better at all kinds of technology that we maybe wouldn’t have done so quickly" except for the pandemic.

At SUNY Old Westbury, the new president, Timothy E. Sams, said the campus — now almost entirely remote — would more fully reopen in the fall but retain a mix of online and in-person classes.

"It’s interesting how this COVID era has amplified the fact that online education is a social justice issue," he said, noting the negative impact on those without access to Wi-Fi or technology, and the benefit of flexible online instruction for those who faced financial, health or family challenges that would otherwise cause them to drop out.

Nationally, overall enrollment fell by 3.6% in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, with most of the drop coming from enrollment declines in community colleges and entering freshmen classes. The Clearinghouse found a 32.6% drop in graduates from high-poverty high schools entering college.

The pandemic’s stresses have reinforced the depth of help students may need to stay in school, Sams said. "When you admit a student, you admit the whole student and the challenges they bring with them, and we have to deal with the whole student," he said, noting Old Westbury students experienced homelessness, financial need, and a 10% increase in the dropout rate within the past year.

Educators agree that the pandemic year has been hardest on undergraduates who, like many of their faculty, tell administrators they crave a return to face-to-face community.

"For the undergrad, there is no substitute for that in-person experience," Berliner said, adding few undergraduates wanted to remain remote. "The high school seniors are even more emphatic. They are very, very, very, very ready and appreciative that the experience will be in person."

Nader said he saw a significant psychological toll on students who suffered from isolation from friends and classrooms, and a yet-unknown effect on educational outcomes among those who found remote interactions difficult.

"We’ve gone to great lengths to make technology available for interactions between faculty and students, but not every student has been comfortable with that," he said. "There are certainly things that are much more difficult to do remotely than in a face-to-face or laboratory setting. We may have a better picture next year as to whether or not there has been shortcomings in their education that we will have to make up for."

Work life on campus could change

Work life on campus could see significant changes, too, school officials said. Many administrative offices and even service offices for students became remote, with employees working from home. That might continue.

"We’ve had a year’s practice, we’re going through every single business unit and office unit to see what we want to retain and what we will bring back" to offices on campus, said Riordan, citing cost controls, efficiencies and flexibility for employees. "We learned we can offer many services remotely … some have found they have been able to work very effectively from home."

Lentini agreed that for some employees, remote work from home was a plus, and "it could potentially for us solve a space crunch," while reducing costs and commute time. But, he said, it’s "not for everyone. There are some who very much miss the office experience."

He added that the college likely would reshape student services after setting up appointments remotely for the last year. "Whether seeking financial aid counseling or career services, those appointments went up 250%," he said. "I have a feeling there will be more of a mixture of face-to-face and Zoom calls because we learned to do it so well."

What can’t be controlled, however, is the coronavirus, and whether it will ever recede enough to make the new normal quite normal enough.

Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of epidemiology at Northwell Health, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, and a professor at Hofstra’s Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine, sounded a guarded note.

He supports reopening campuses, he said, because "what’s the point of going to college if you can’t socialize? That is so much a part of this and I think [campuses] are going to be better."

But he warned, "Things will never quite be the same, and universities will have to make some difficult decisions. I strongly suspect that these universities will require students to be vaccinated to matriculate because this will be the only way to protect their students, their sports, their athletics, and their extracurriculars."

If students do return to bars, spring breaks and big parties in the near future, they should expect more COVID-19 cases, he said.

"I think there will still be COVID cases for the foreseeable future," Farber said. "It will be a different normal and one we have to become realistic in dealing with."

Pandemic effects


  • Adelphi University: 5% drop in enrollment from fall 2019 compared to fall 2020.
  • Farmingdale State College: .45% increase in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
  • Molloy College: 1% drop fall 2019 to fall 2020


  • Adelphi: CARES Act federal funding of $5,246,966, of which $2,623,483 allotted to students in emergency grants, spring 2020. Additional $8,279,486 under the CRRSA Act for the current academic year, of which $2,623,483 allotted to students, and institutional funds allotted toward pandemic-related costs and losses in excess of $10 million. Anticipates further funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.
  • Farmingdale State: CARES Act funds of $6.2 million, with $3.1 million distributed to students, and $3.1 million to help fill budget gap of $5.2 million in pandemic-related revenue losses and expenditures, spring 2020. Anticipates $12 million in CRRSA Act funds, with $3 million for students for this academic year. Anticipates further funding under the American Rescue Plan Act.
  • Molloy College: CARES Act funds of $2.8 million, CRRSA Act funds $5.2 million, for student grants and to help pay for $12 million in pandemic-related college costs and expenses.

SOURCES: Adelphi University, Farmingdale State College, Molloy College

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