Students react to two-week pause at Binghamton and Cortland campuses

State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras, center, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger, and student leaders tour SUNY Binghamton on September 16, 2020. On Oct. 7, 2020, the two men announced a precautionary two-week pause on all in-person classes and activities following an increase in COVID-19 cases both in Broome County and on campus.

A surge in COVID-19 cases caused SUNY Cortland and SUNY Binghamton to suspend in-person classes and activities and transition to remote learning for at least two weeks. These campuses join the two New York state colleges that have faced closures so far this year: SUNY Oswego, which just ended their two-week pause on Oct. 5, and SUNY Oneonta, which has transitioned to fully remote learning for the remainder of the fall semester. 

The pause at SUNY Binghamton was a precautionary decision announced by SUNY Binghamton President Harvey Stenger and SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras Oct. 7. The pause officially began Thursday, Oct. 8 when the college was 11 cases short of the 100-case threshold set by Governor Andrew Cuomo. SUNY Binghamton has since reported 113 total positive COVID cases between Sept. 26 and Oct. 9. 

“I believe the Binghamton University community will rise to this pivotal moment, stay vigilant, protect one another and do what needs to be done to bat back this vicious virus so that students can return to in-person learning in two weeks,” said Chancellor Malatras.

SUNY Cortland President Erik Bitterbaum and Malatras announced the pause at the college two days prior on Oct. 5, after surpassing the threshold at 101 active cases. Within the same two week time frame as SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Cortland reported 188 positive cases. 

The purpose of the two-week pause at both colleges is to contain the spread of COVID-19. This strategy was successful so far at SUNY Oswego, with 41 positive cases between Sept. 25 and Oct. 9 as compared to 138 positive cases between Sept. 12 and Sept. 15. 

The Legislative Gazette interviewed Grace Pastore, a third-year student at SUNY Cortland about her experience. Pastore is studying adolescence English education and is also an active member of the club field hockey team and a sorority, Sigma Delta Tau. These campus organizations are unable to meet in person for any practices or events. 

“I prefer in person learning of course, learning remote is very difficult especially for my major. I was supposed to be placed in a classroom for observation hours this semester but I was unable to due to COVID-19, so my observation consists of prerecorded classroom lessons,” said Pastore. 

She also said that SUNY Cortland has been diligent in their effort to enforce safety policies on and off campus. According to Pastore, the college has implemented a pooled testing strategy which chooses students at random. Pastore does, however, wish that the college required testing before students arrived at school. 

Also interviewed by the Legislative Gazette was Kaelin O’Brien, a fourth-year student studying mathematics at SUNY Cortland. Similarly to Pastore, O’Brien feels that the college should have implemented more aggressive testing from the start of the semester. 

O’Brien is a member of the varsity field hockey team at Cortland and lives off-campus with five of her teammates. Although she said it is important to have consequences for noncompliance with COVID-19 protocols, O’Brien feels that certain punishments may be too harsh. 

“Athletics are a huge part of the culture and face of Cortland and the school is definitely trying to stop any disruption of their brand. Athletes on and off-campus are basically being put into prison,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien feels that athletic teams are under a microscope, especially after both athletics and Greek life have been suspended indefinitely at SUNY Cortland on Sept. 13. She mentioned the uniform policy set by Chancellor Malatras on Sept. 25 and specifically noted certain consequences like a year suspension and potential loss in NCAA eligibility. 

The Legislative Gazette also interviewed two third-year students from SUNY Binghamton, Dana Fatzsinger and Zoë Handelman. Neither were necessarily surprised that the pause occurred, but rather were surprised that it did not happen sooner. 

“I would have expected it earlier in the semester because it felt like people weren’t really being smart and weren’t really doing what they were supposed to. I felt like people have been doing a little bit better so the surge is surprising in that aspect but it did kind of feel like it was going to happen eventually,” Fatzsinger said.

Fatzsinger and Handelman both live off-campus and have concern for how the college has handled protocols for off-campus students. Handelman said she was randomly selected for a COVID-19 test but Fatzsinger has not been tested. Similar to SUNY Cortland, students at SUNY Binghamton were not required to get tested for the virus prior to the start of classes. Both Fatzsinger and Handelman attended in-person classes prior to the pause. 

“On-campus students have lots of restrictions in place for them but there is really not much stopping off-campus students from being irresponsible and spreading the virus. Bars are still open and there is no authority stopping the high numbers there,” Handelman said.

According to Handelman, organizations like fraternities are still having parties even after Binghamton enacted the “social host” law. This law was introduced in July previous to students returning to campus by Mayor Richard David for the entire city of Binghamton. SUNY Binghamton Campus and Community Coalition (BCCC) worked with the city on this legislation to reduce high-risk underage drinking. If there is a party, anyone listed on the lease or the owner of the property would be subject to a fine of $1,000 or 15 days of imprisonment. 

The two-week pause suspends both in-person classes and in-person activities. Handelman said she was very involved in a major Jewish organization on campus, Hillel. According to Handelman, there used to be frequent in-person events which included free Shabbat dinner for 100-200 people. 

“They’ve been really creative in how they still have events. For Zoom events with supplies involved, people can go to a pickup location on or off campus. For Shabbat dinner, Hillel will reimburse you to host a small group of people in your home,” Handelman said. “It’s definitely hard to reach as many people through online events and I often see the same faces at every event I go to, but things are still happening and I still feel involved in the community.”

Fatzsinger is a member of the X’Fact’r (Xpressionism of African Culture through Rhythm) Step Team at SUNY Binghamton. She said that the team was set to have an outdoor performance that is now cancelled due to the pause. This year is also the organization’s 20th anniversary and Fatzsinger questioned how much her and her teammates will be able to plan due to the pause and other COVID-19 related restrictions. 

“I really enjoyed doing it, it was a stress reliever for me and I got to see other people that weren’t my friends. It got me physical activity which was really nice and I really miss it,” Fatzsinger said.

However, as temperatures decrease, open-air, socially-distanced gatherings will become less and less frequent in general. This change in seasons could exacerbate the mental health concerns already looming over thousands of college students. 

“The biggest impact is not being able to see friends like I used to. We manage by hanging out outside, but this will only work for the next few weeks when it’s warm out and then I’m not sure what we’ll do,” Handelman said.

In recognition of the mental health impact of such closures, as well as the toll the coronavirus has taken on students in general, Chancellor Malatras announced a comprehensive mental health plan to address the needs of college students on Oct. 4. The SUNY System partnered with Thriving Campus which gives students access to a network of over six thousand licensed mental health service providers.

Also included in Malatras’ mental health initiative is the expansion of the SUNY Student Tele-Counseling Network (STCN), the expansion of a peer-peer assistance hotline and the launch of the #ReachOutSUNY campaign. This campaign is meant to address the stigma related to mental health and also educate on resources and training that could aid those struggling with mental health. 

As of Oct. 12, SUNY Binghamton has three total positive tests for the reporting week of Oct. 10-23 and SUNY Cortland has reported 14 positive cases that count toward the governor’s threshold. Given the colleges are able to contain the surge in COVID-19 cases, in-person classes are set to resume at SUNY Binghamton on Thursday, Oct. 22 and resume on Monday, Oct. 19 at SUNY Cortland.