Long Island University Post will move to all remote instruction for two weeks starting immediately, according to a letter issued by LIU President Kimberly R. Cline.
The decision came after rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students attributed to off-campus parties.
"While our numbers are well below the mandated thresholds for remote learning, we have chosen to act now," she wrote in the Wednesday night letter. "This gives us the best opportunity to reverse the trend and welcome you back in two weeks."
She said additional cases were reported in recent days by students who were in contact with other students at the off-campus gatherings.
The COVID-19 outbreak at LIU Post had grown, with 20 new cases reported on its school dashboard Wednesday and a total of 33 since Saturday.
Currently, 41 students are isolating with positive test results or symptoms, and 78 are in quarantine, with a total of 49 cases so far this semester, according to the state COVID-19 Report Card listing cases reported from schools throughout the state.
Other large Long Island campuses, such as SUNY Stony Brook and Hofstra, routinely use surveillance testing of random students to detect infectious spread early. LIU has performed only 172 surveillance tests, on athletes, according to the report card.
While other local universities rely heavily on remote instruction, LIU — which according to its website instructs nearly 15,000 students with main campuses in Brooklyn and at LIU Post in Brookville — opted to offer most classes in-person, leaving some students and faculty uneasy over the extent of COVID-19 on campus.
The Post campus in Brookville is the only LIU campus going to all remote instruction.
Many students at LIU were already opting to take classes remotely, leaving the parking lot half empty and some classrooms nearly empty as well, professors said. Despite the outbreak, an Oct. 9 email from LIU Post Associate Dean of Students Jean Anne Smith, posted on the faculty listserv, said the university, as of Oct. 1, would no longer accept requests from students for remote learning except for extenuating circumstances, but that students could ask professors for permission to do so.
The university blamed off-campus gatherings attended by school athletes for the outbreak that resulted in an initial cluster of 14 positive cases.
Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, said signs of spreading infection could cause a school to go entirely remote or close until the infection spread is controlled.
"It depends on how many cases they have, and if you are starting to get new cases outside the concentric ring" of people affected in the original event, he said. "If you get three new cases in students outside the initial cluster, that’s a big problem. You’re usually going to go remote and close the school down for a certain amount of time."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said colleges must go to remote instruction for two weeks if cases reach 100, or 5% of their campus population, whichever is less.
LIU asks its students to get tested off-campus if they are exposed or feel unwell. Administrators say the Nassau County Department of Health gets reports on positive test results and then works with the administration to trace contacts on campus.
At Hofstra, however, its surveillance testing program calls for 5% of the student body to be tested weekly. At Stony Brook, where 2,113 tests were administered between Oct. 6 and Monday, two positive cases were detected for a 0.1% positive rate. The university is now going to test all residential students weekly and sample its 1,500 commuter students.
LIU Post faculty union president John Lutz said the union would renew its calls for surveillance testing in the wake of the outbreak.
Many of the athletes who could have been exposed, directly or indirectly, in the latest outbreak, were left to get tested on their own.
LIU’s sophomore linebacker Liam McIntyre of Westhampton, who said his team activities were in "pause" after an earlier two-week stoppage, said he was not required to get tested.
"I returned home to take my classes remotely," he said. "I have to quarantine for two weeks because I was in indirect contact with someone who tested positive. The university did not test us before our workouts — I had taken a test before school started that my family had me take and I was negative. Now that I’ve been exposed, I thought getting tested would be the responsible thing to do. Even though I’m asymptomatic, I could be a carrier, and I’d like to know."
McIntyre was waiting for his test results.
"I’m home. I’m fine, but I feel bad that our whole family has to quarantine now for two weeks," he said. "I came home to quarantine and that affected the entire family. They all had to be tested."
Students and faculty have complained about what they feel is a lack of transparency about the number of cases on campus. Letters are sent to classmates and professors notifying them of a positive case in their class, but no one knows if they’ve been exposed outside of class to a person with COVID-19, or if they sat in class with someone exposed in another classroom, said student Theresa Roselle, 19, a digital gaming design major.
Roselle, a junior, decided in September to go to remote learning after being notified a classmate was positive, and finding out about other positive cases in other classrooms. And, she said, initially the school did not post new positive cases swiftly. For the first weeks of school, despite knowing of new positive cases, she said, "We saw no changes in the COVID numbers; in fact they stayed zero for weeks. … It shows that not only students outside the class, but the public doesn't know what's going on."
LIU is responsible for reporting its cases to the state COVID-19 Report Card. But not all professors believe they are getting notified of positive cases quickly enough.
LIU English Professor Dennis Pahl said he was told Wednesday by a student of her positive test result "this week" but that he had yet to be notified officially. He last saw her in class almost a week ago, on Thursday. "I thought by now the university would have acted more swiftly in contacting me, and I have no idea whether students in the class were contacted," he said. "I have concern for myself as much as for the students."
He said that while rows of desks in his narrow classroom were 6 feet distanced from front to back, the desks were barely 2 feet apart side by side. Instructors and students are told in letters notifying them of a positive case that there is no need to quarantine or get tested from a classroom exposure because everyone is masked and 6 feet apart.
Andrew Wallace, who resigned last month from his position as professor in the digital game design and development program, said he left rather than teach in the small windowless computer lab to which he was assigned. There, he said, desks were squeezed, and computers separated by a roll of plastic that did not extend far enough to separate and protect the students sitting 2 to 3 feet apart.
They were provided with baby wipes that didn’t contain alcohol or disinfectants to clean their computers, said Wallace, who is continuing to teach remotely while the university searches for a replacement. He questioned the administration’s instructions that classroom exposure by itself didn’t warrant testing or quarantines.
"It’s bewildering," he said. "If someone is in the room with you for sometimes three hours who has COVID, you should get tested. That seems like common sense."
With Gregg Sarra