Higher education was enthusiastically planning for a more normal year as recently as July — with relaxed COVID-19 restrictions and in-person classes.
Now, with the surge of the highly infectious delta variant, the return of crowded, in-person classes will depend on how well colleges and universities contain the virus through vaccine and masking mandates, education leaders acknowledge. An optimistic return to large campus events, festivities and gatherings already faces growing caution, as a few days before Adelphi University’s welcoming ceremony for first-year students on Aug. 27, it was switched from in-person to virtual.
What to know
Most classes for Long Island colleges and universities will be in-person this fall.
Most schools will rely on vaccine mandates, universal masking, COVID-19 testing and other protocols to contain outbreaks.
Schools said they are prepared to switch to remote instruction if conditions get worse.
With the recent full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, tens of thousands of additional students in the SUNY system, including at local community colleges, were given a 35-day grace period to become fully vaccinated. New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury announced it, too, is requiring all students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 22, and to mask indoors regardless of vaccination status.
On a recent weekend, a 19-year-old transfer student to LIU Post sat in the post-vaccination area of a CVS after getting a mandated jab that he likely would not have gotten on his own.
"At first I was, ‘Why?’ but in all honesty, it’s not a big deal," said John Lopes Jr., of Old Westbury. Last fall, Penn State University sent him home to study remotely three weeks into his freshman year, and now he hopes "it is more normal. Enough with the video. Back to life, speak to each other like we’re supposed to."
Universities and colleges have contingency plans and said they will follow guidelines and the advice of public health authorities. But they are committed to in-person instruction if conditions permit, they said.
"No one wants to shut things down, no one wants to go to remote learning, and no one wants to destroy kids’ college experience," said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish, and a professor at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. "So that’s why I think we have to require vaccines and masking as much as possible to limit the damage and allow us to continue to function even if there are small outbreaks."
The new school year has proved tumultuous across the country, with professors threatening walkouts to force masking and vaccines, failed lawsuits by students against vaccine mandates, and outbreaks among some vaccinated students at Duke University in North Carolina. In COVID-19 hot spot Houston, Rice University made classes remote for the first two weeks and offered refunds to students who chose not to live on campus.
Hofstra spokesperson Karla Schuster said vaccines and masking will reinforce university protocols that kept the campus open without interruption last academic year. "As a result, we believe we are in an even better position to ensure the safety of our campus as we return to normal operations," she said.
Faculty, staff call for transparency
At Adelphi, protocols put in place last year for remote learning and virtual options for support services remain in place, said spokesperson Taylor Damian, adding that the school is committed to a "full in-person academic experience" as permitted by the state, and the safety of community members. For now, COVID-19 protocols remain in place: Indoor meetings are capped at 50, with 6 feet of social distancing, and socially distanced performances and athletic events are capped at 50% capacity.
The assurances by university administrations about protocols and guidelines have not convinced all faculty, who said they want more transparency on steps should an outbreak occur.
Julie Sheehan, a Stony Brook University associate professor of creative writing, said if students are quarantined, "How many of them are quarantined before we go online, for example? What do I do if I have to be quarantined for 10 days, do I cancel all those classes? These are predictable problems … we should have a set of bench marks or rules so we know what to do."
Classes started on Aug. 23 and, she added, "Our valiant Stony Brook students are rigorous about masking up — even as they walk outside between buildings. Everyone is doing what they can. But delta is wily, our classrooms are packed, and while I’m hoping for the best, I wish we had a clear Plan B in the event of an outbreak. Even a definition of 'outbreak' would help."
Allen Tannenbaum, Stony Brook’s distinguished professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, is relieved that the vaccine mandate is in effect for all SUNY students, but said the university should go further on hybrid classes — part in-person and part online — to reduce density in classrooms and on campus.
"I think there needs to be a middle ground. If we see a limited number of cases, they should be prepared to go to a hybrid system," he said. "I’m against a total lockdown. We don’t want a ghost campus."
But, he added, given the virus surge, "I still do not understand why the administration constantly needs to scramble when the simplest solution is just to keep the campus population lower for now."
Citing its record of aggressive testing, tracing and quarantining, combined with its vaccine and mask mandates, Stony Brook officials said in a statement that the university's experience "will help us navigate successfully this fall. … As we did at the beginning of each semester, we expect a small uptick of cases, which we will track and handle promptly to mitigate transmission." Stony Brook added that it was confident the university was prepared to "protect the heath and safety of our community."
As of Thursday, university officials said 90% of all Stony Brook students enrolled in at least one in-person class have submitted proof of vaccination, and 99% of residents have submitted proof of vaccination, with the remaining 1% obtaining a medical or religious exemption.
As for commuter students, 84% enrolled in at least one in-person class at Stony Brook have submitted proof of vaccination. The remaining commuter students will need to submit proof of vaccination by Sept. 24 in order to remain enrolled in fall in-person classes, officials said.
At Adelphi, Aaren Freeman, president of the faculty union, said the administration has been accommodating while working on a mix of in-person, hybrid and remote courses.
"We’re making the best of a bad situation," he said. "I think we’re all concerned about breakthrough cases," where vaccinated individuals become infected with the coronavirus. But, he added, "Some of us were teaching in-person last year, so this year feels much safer."
At Molloy College in Rockville Centre, faculty president Professor John Eterno said the faculty task force on COVID-19 worked closely with the college’s task force and, while masking was still under discussion, he was largely satisfied with its process.
Students welcome the end of isolation
For most students, the return to in-person college life is a welcome end to remote isolation, despite their trepidations.
"The atmosphere is a mix of excited and nervous," said Stony Brook junior Sophia Hoss, 20, a creative-writing major from Greenlawn, "because I think we’re all unsure what the developments with the delta variant will bring. We’re just taking it one day at a time. But I think we’re all committed to making this work and are really hoping for the best."
Giuliana Palasciano, 23, of Commack, who is starting her second year in Stony Brook’s master’s of Public Health program, said she was eager to meet professors and fellow students she’s only talked to on Zoom, and for "a change of pace instead of staring at a computer all day."
Some disabled students interviewed last spring had hoped remote options and accommodations stayed in place for them. But Emma Greenfield, 22, an Adelphi social work major from Hicksville, is eager to return to the classroom despite mobility issues. "I feel that being in-person gives me a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a sense of friendship that you can’t foster through a screen," she said.
Some students opposed to vaccine mandates are opting out. At St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, Francie Brucceleri, 23, a psychology major from Nesconset who will graduate from the college in December, said more than 3,300 people, many of them nonstudents, had signed her Change.org petition protesting the vaccine mandate there. She said she knows some students who will take a gap year or semester off rather than be vaccinated.
"They’re holding our degrees over our heads and it’s not fair," said Brucceleri, who said she isn’t opposed to the shots but wants longer-term data on the vaccines before being vaccinated. "They didn’t give us a remote or hybrid option or the option to wear masks and get tested. It was ‘get vaccinated or your enrollment is jeopardized.' "
St. Joseph's College said it had a "moral and ethical obligation to institute a vaccine mandate for all SJC students and employees to minimize the risk of exposure and future spread of the virus."
"Ironically," Brucceleri said, as it turns out, she won’t need to apply for one of the medical and religious exemptions, which are the only avenues to come on-campus unvaccinated. Her recent case of COVID-19 caught in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, means a three-month wait before she could get vaccinated.