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Low COVID-19 positivity rates stir cautious optimism on college campuses

Traditional events such as the Wolfieland Carnival, cancelled

Traditional events such as the Wolfieland Carnival, cancelled last year, returned to the Stony Brook campus on Sept. 11. Credit: Howard Simmons

A cautious version of normalcy is enlivening Long Island's college campuses, but the higher education experience for tens of thousands of students is still bound by the protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-person classes, clubs and even carnivals are back this semester — following largely remote instruction last school year — and most homecoming and family weekends are on schedule. Fans are back in stadium stands. But masking and vaccination mandates, capacity limits on indoor gatherings and some outdoor events, health screening and temperature checks, along with regular testing of the unvaccinated, remain in place on some campuses to ward off the threat of outbreaks.

Some campuses are reporting dozens of cases of COVID-19 over the first weeks of the semester, but positivity rates remain far lower than those outside the campus gates.

"We're confident, but also being extra cautious, as we monitor where the pandemic numbers are headed around us," Adelphi University spokesperson Todd Wilson said.

The university in Garden City, which mandates that students be vaccinated, has 25 cases of COVID-19, with 42 other students in quarantine, as shown on its coronavirus tracking dashboard. The positivity rate Friday was 0.4%, compared to the 4.1% positivity rate on Long Island, according to the state's most recent seven-day tracking data.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, where an outbreak forced the nearly 800 midshipmen into quarantine and virtual instruction early last spring, canceled on-campus homecoming and parents weekends events set for the fall. More than 20 students had tested positive for COVID-19 this semester as of Aug. 30.

"Our experience with COVID is that once it is on campus, it is difficult to control and eradicate, and it is extremely disruptive to the quality of life of our midshipmen," Academy Superintendent Jack Buono said in a statement Aug. 30 announcing the cancellations and a dining hall policy mandating vaccination before entry.

In the first three weeks at Stony Brook University, 38 students, 28 employees and 87 Stony Brook Medicine employees tested positive for COVID-19, but the overall student positivity rate over the last two weeks is under 1%, according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard.

Students in the SUNY system, including Stony Brook, Farmingdale State College, SUNY Old Westbury, Empire State College and Nassau and Suffolk community colleges, have until Friday to post proof of vaccination or obtain an exemption. SUNY Old Westbury had nine active student cases and one active employee case for a positivity rate of 0.22%, according to its dashboard, while 20 students were in isolation at Farmingdale State, according to the SUNY COVID-19 tracker.

Traditional events such as the Wolfieland Carnival, canceled last year, are back on the Stony Brook campus. Last Saturday, it attracted more than 4,000 students to its rides, games and food vendors, said Devin Lobosco, 18, a sophomore from Bayside, Queens, who is a senator in the Undergraduate Student Government.

"We took our measures to keep everyone safe, and turnout was a lot higher than anyone expected, which was wonderful," he said, noting most students were masked. The campus still isn't as vibrant as he's been told it was before his freshman year, when almost all his classes were virtual, but it's coming back, he said.

"From what I heard, we are slowly making that comeback," Lobosco said, adding that interest in clubs is surging now that they are in-person. "I definitely see that people are more comfortable being out and about."

Vaccination rates high at Hofstra

At Hofstra University, where vaccines are mandated for students and employees, vaccination rates are high, allowing the Hempstead campus to "operate as close to normal as possible this fall, with some additional health and safety protocols," spokesperson Karla Schuster said. Masking is required indoors, and "in addition, we check the vaccination status of attendees at indoor academic events," she said.

The Hofstra COVID-19 dashboard for the week of Sept. 4-10 showed 67 positives for returning students, about half from on-campus testing. Four employees tested positive as well.

St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, which had 10 self-reported COVID-19 cases, began testing on-campus Thursday. All unvaccinated students and faculty who received medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate will be tested weekly, spokesperson Jessica McAleer said.

While most classes are in-person, clubs are encouraged to meet virtually, she said, and while the college will host some large-scale events such as investiture and the Golden Eagles Spirit Fest, they will be outdoors and at lower-than-normal density. Indoor and outdoor athletic events will require masks and social distancing, she said, adding, "There will be no tailgating allowed."

Taylor Damian, a spokesperson at Adelphi, said residence halls were at 98% capacity and noted the university went further than state guidelines in imposing social distancing rules, limiting indoor gatherings to 50 where social distancing wasn't possible, and 50% capacity at outdoor and indoor venues and events. Those protocols will be reviewed on Oct. 1 "for possible alteration based on county and university infection data trends," she said.

Meanwhile, she said, Spirit Weekend in October will be a mix of in-person and online events, including Spirit Carnival, class reunions and Casino Night.

On the Brookville campus of Long Island University C.W. Post, students and employees must post proof of vaccination by Sept. 24, wear masks indoors and get tested regularly if granted a medical or religious exemption to vaccination. Classes, events, organizations and athletics are back in-person and in line with the school's goal "for our campus, classrooms and facilities to feel normal for students while complying with all proper protocols to keep everyone safe," said Maureen Cronin, a spokesperson.

The university was the only one on Long Island to require most faculty to teach in person throughout 2020-21, with the exception of a few weeks of remote instruction after a COVID-19 outbreak. The school's COVID-19 dashboard shows three positives among students, from 105 tests administered the week ending Sept. 17.

At Five Towns College in Dix Hills, students and faculty must be vaccinated by Sept. 30.

Some schools not posting dashboards

While some campuses post COVID-19 dashboards showing current testing and positive test results, others, including Molloy College and New York Institute of Technology, do not.

Molloy College will update its community weekly, said spokesperson Ken Young, who added the college was trying to restore a sense of normalcy with events such as its unmasked outdoor back-to-school celebration, trips including one to Medieval Times, and an open house in November with masking indoors.

Young said Molloy, where vaccines are mandated for students and employees, had 14 positive tests from people in all Molloy locations. The college does not specify whether those are students, faculty or staff.

Dr. Brian Harper, chief medical officer of NYIT, said submission of COVID-19-related data was no longer required by New York State, which no longer posts school COVID-19 cases other than those in the SUNY system.

"Should this become a requirement again, New York Tech will certainly comply with making this information available," Harper said. "We expect that our masking and vaccine requirements, in addition to our daily health screening, will reduce the likelihood of spread of the coronavirus on our campus."

Meanwhile, Tiffani Blake, NYIT's assistant provost for Student Development & Engagement, said the campus, where vaccines are mandated for students and employees, has a much different feel now from the last academic year.

"The parking lots weren’t full last year, the lounges weren’t full, the dining areas weren’t full. There was ample seating everywhere," Blake said. "This year, the parking lots are full … You see the vibrancy in the dining areas, students in clusters talking to each other. There’s an excitement and great synergy.

"It feels like a campus," she said.

What to know

Colleges and universities on Long Island are mandating vaccines for students — and, with few exceptions, for faculty and staff as well. COVID-19 positivity rates among students and employees are lower than the rates in Nassau and Suffolk counties overall.

Instruction is still a mix of remote, hybrid and in-person courses, but with many more available in-person this semester than in 2020-21.

While some big events are virtual, many traditional events canceled last year, such as homecoming and parents weekends, are back on most campuses.

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