By Joan Gaylord
How does the nation’s largest public higher education system respond to a global pandemic? How do they protect the community while also continuing to fulfill its mission to educate its student body? And how is it that they have consistently had virus testing rates lower than the national averages?
Dr. Jim Malatras, chancellor of the State University of New York, as well as Dr. Milagros Pena, president of Purchase College, and Dr. Belinda Miles, president of Westchester Community College, shared their experiences during an online event sponsored by the Business Council of Westchester KeyBank Program.
“We saw this train coming,” said Malatras, recalling his actions last spring. “But it came upon us so quickly. In March, we didn’t know how it was going to play out, but we adapted as a system.”
WCC quickly collaborated with the Westchester County Department of Health after the community became aware of the impending pandemic, Miles noted. She said officials followed scientific, evidence-based practices that would both protect the WCC community and allow them to continue offering classes.
“There is no playbook for this,” Miles said. “We have had to be extremely nimble and learn fast.”
One step that WCC administrators pursued was moving most classes online. Over the summer, 100 percent of the faculty became certified in online learning in just two weeks. And while this has allowed the school to resume classes, it has also created new challenges.
One of the most glaring tasks each school has faced, the educators each said, has been the disparity in resources available to their students. Shifting to online learning revealed the unequal access to technology such including the availability of high-speed internet service, they said.
It has also removed a safety net that colleges provide for some students, including the availability of healthy food, a situation exacerbated by the economic devastation brought on by the pandemic.
“This has not been easy,” said Pena. “College, for many students, provides a haven.”
Pena added that SUNY officials have worked toward a change in policy for SNAP recipients. Students have been able to use their time spent in classes to meet the usual work requirements necessary to receive the benefits that allow them access to healthy food.
The SUNY system has also expanded mental wellness services for their students in response to the emotional impact of the pandemic.
Both Westchester campuses have continued to provide limited in-person learning, a step they realized would require careful planning and a lot of on-campus COVID testing. Their vigilance has resulted in one of the lowest positive test rates in the nation, Malatras said.
“Our students have done a phenomenal job,” he added.
And to protect the students’ families, each student who has spent this past fall on campus were tested before returning home for Thanksgiving.
Educators said schools are now in the process of planning for next semester, a step made more challenging by the exhaustion so many are feeling after spending the last year adapting to necessary restrictions.
Before returning to campus, students must first provide a negative COVID test result. Calendars have also been adjusted to resume classes the first week of February, with spring break eliminated to minimize travel that could result in spreading the virus.
Furthermore, students will continue to get tested regularly while on campus.
Pena said much of the SUNY Purchase population has been willing to abide by regulations, such as wearing masks and social distancing, steps that have allowed the school to safely continue providing educational services.
“It really showcases our future leaders,” she said.