State University of New York students will need to test negative for COVID-19 before they head back home for Thanksgiving, according to another measure by the state’s public higher education system aimed to stop the spread of the virus.
"By requiring all students to test negative before leaving, we are implementing a smart, sensible policy that protects students' families and hometown communities and drastically reduces the chances of COVID-19 community spread," SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said Tuesday.
Residential and commuter students who test positive will work with their respective campus student affairs department and county health department to determine where would be best for the student to isolate or quarantine, said Lawrence Zacarese, Stony Brook University's interim chief of police and assistant vice president of campus safety.
SUNY earlier this month issued new sanctions for students who violate health and safety protocols designed to combat the pandemic. The sanctions came after outbreaks occurred on SUNY campuses, including SUNY Oneonta, where nearly 700 people had tested positive for the virus.
At Stony Brook, for example, residential students who refuse to participate in required testing are placed on interim housing suspension and temporarily removed from campus housing until they comply, according to the university.
Most SUNY campuses will be shifting to a full-remote schedule after Thanksgiving break, based on previously approved fall semester plans.
"This new testing mandate is designed to ensure that transition happens safely," Malatras said.
SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities will need to submit plans by Nov. 5 that adhere to the new mandate and get about 140,000 students tested. Tests should be done close to the students' departure date, Malatras said in the release.
The mandate applies to all students taking at least one class on campus; using on-campus services like the gym, library or dining hall; or working on campus, according to SUNY. Antibody tests do not count toward this requirement, the release stated. Faculty and staff are strongly recommended to get tested in the same period, the release stated.
At Stony Brook University, all 4,500 residential students are tested on a weekly basis, said Zacarese, who oversees the university's COVID-19 response.
"Testing the students leading up to Thanksgiving won’t be a challenge at all," Zacarese said. "The new guidance is consistent with our plans prior to today's announcement."
Stony Brook has had two positive cases in the last 14 days, according to the SUNY COVID-19 online tracker. The rolling 14-day positive rate was .12% as of Tuesday. The university has had 28 total positives from campus administered testing this semester, the website shows.
Overall, SUNY has tested more than 270,000 students with a positivity rate of 0.52%. The rolling 14-day positivity rate is 0.33%, the website shows.
Commuter students who test positive or who are exposed to COVID-19 must follow quarantine and isolation guidance from the school's local county health department, the mandate states.
"We would work with the local health department, who ultimately is the authority to determine where the student should isolate and if it's best for them to isolate at home or on campus," Zacarese said. If a parent wanted to pick up their child who tested positive, they would work with the school's local health department and the college's student affairs team to determine the best solution, he said.
Stony Brook University has 316 on-campus rooms available for isolation, according to the SUNY COVID-19 tracker.
"From what I’ve seen so far, students have been pretty receptive of the testing mandates," said Margaret Ross, 19, a junior at Stony Brook University studying sociology. "We all want to be able to have our college experience on campus, and a big part of that has been the testing."
Ross commutes daily to campus from her home in Blue Point. The commuter spends about seven hours on campus every day, she said. As a member of the school’s cross-country team, testing has become a normal part of the semester for Ross. She’s been tested four times, with negative results each time, she said.
"I know there’s a big concern with college students going home for family gatherings on Thanksgiving, so I wasn’t surprised to hear this would be the case," Ross said of the new mandate.
"Before coming to campus, a lot of students weren’t into the idea of getting tested because it was still a new thing. But now we’re well into the semester and we’ve only had a few cases compared to other schools, so we’re actually thankful for all the testing. We were able to maintain somewhat of a normal college experience," Ross said.
Zacarese said there will be 24/7 food service available, as well as yoga and mental health check-ins available via Zoom for those students who need to quarantine on-campus. "We really focus on student success and student support during the very difficult time of being isolated," he said.
Some students say they feel better about going home knowing that they won't bring with them the virus.
"I feel like we should get tested before going home because we don’t want to be at fault for spreading the virus," said Samantha Lu, 21, a senior at Stony Brook University studying biology. "It’s just safer to know."
Lu said she plans to return to her family in Staten Island for Thanksgiving.
"They’re a little bit worried and call me every day to check in, so they definitely wanted me to get tested before going home," she said.
Barri Feuer of East Northport, whose daughter Taryn attends SUNY Fredonia, says she feels the mandate was the right move.
"It seems like a responsible plan," Feuer said. "I would hate to find out that thousands of college students would come home and potentially bring the numbers up. That’s a scary thought."
Feuer said she and her family have strictly followed the virus precautions and don’t plan to see extended family members for Thanksgiving.
"Knowing that Taryn will have been tested negative helps us feel even better about her coming home, especially since we haven’t seen her since dropping her off in August," Feuer said. Once she’s home, Feuer said, her daughter plans to quarantine before reuniting with friends.
The SUNY Old Westbury campus does not have any residential students this semester, but some students still go to campus for classes and to use facilities, said Teresa Miller, officer-in-charge there.
"Providing the highest-quality, safest educational experience for our students has been our focus throughout this semester, so this new policy aligns with the heightened protocols we've had on health and safety all along," Miller said.
The university will provide full testing capacity for the final few days before in-person instruction ends on Nov. 18, she said. About 90 students are expected to get tested during that time, she said.
Suffolk County Community College also doesn't have a residential population and currently requires weekly pooled surveillance testing for every student, college officials said. SCCC will apply to have their preexisting policy fulfill the new requirement, they said.
Hofstra University conducts student surveillance testing four times a week, during which students are chosen at random to get tested, said university spokeswoman Karla Schuster. Testing will be provided to any student who wants to be tested before the last day of classes on Nov. 24, she said.