SUNY Oswego reports first cases of COVID-19

One of the many signs and placards around the campus of SUNY Oswego urging students to "do their part" to stop the spread of COVID-19.

OSWEGO — SUNY Oswego officials this week reported the first positive cases of COVID-19 on campus since testing began Aug. 12.

The two cases were posted on the university’s online COVID-19 dashboard Tuesday night, after a rigorous period of testing for the infectious disease and self-reporting of symptoms that started earlier this month. Both cases are part of the Aug. 24-30 testing period, officials said. One of the students who tested positive for the virus resides in the school’s dorms, while the other one commutes to the lakeside campus.

SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley told The Palladium-Times the university is “taking the matter very seriously.”

“This is why we were very adamant about conducting baseline testing at the beginning of the semester,” she said. “We wanted to get a medically-tested baseline of our campus population, confirm that our infection rate is low, and then focus on monitoring ourselves and others throughout the semester.  We have stressed to students, faculty and staff that together we must make a choice to be mindful of our actions and how they truly affect the very lives of others.”

A total of 5,213 student tests have been conducted so far, according to college records, and the two positive tests announced Tuesday confirmed a hard truth: nowhere is immune to the coronavirus.

Stanley urged students to “do the right thing” when it comes to personal responsibility for stopping the spread of COVID-19.

“Whether in residence halls, off-campus locations or even down by the rocks on the lakeshore, large social gatherings and parties that defy social distancing and health/safety guidelines are selfish actions that recklessly put all of us at risk, as well as put our ability to complete a face-to-face semester on campus in jeopardy,” Stanley said.

First-year and other select students began arriving at SUNY Oswego last Monday and classes began in earnest this week. Administrators are asking Laker students to adhere to an “Oswego Forward Pledge” that “acknowledges the vital role all members of our college community play in helping to protect the health and safety of each other.”

As part of the pledge, students commit to showing “kindness, empathy and respect toward myself and all members of the community,” completing an online screening form if they plan to visit campus that day, wearing face coverings, adhering to state and local distancing guidelines and washing hands frequently.

Student Affairs Vice President Jerri Howland warned of the consequences of violating the pledge.

“Staff are monitoring the daily screening and if students are found to be on campus and have not completed a health screen for that day, they are in violation of our Oswego Pledge and will face loss of campus privileges,” she said in a Wednesday interview.

“Oswego Forward” also includes the college’s re-opening plan, which gathered the input of students, educators, university administrators, civic leaders and health experts. According to the protocols, individuals affiliated with the university presenting symptoms are to be reported to the Oswego County Health Department.

University officials also noted the re-opening includes measures to transition into distance learning should the situation merit such changes.

“Interwoven throughout our academic plan is the ability to pivot as we work together across the institution to deliver excellence in instruction and to support and promote student health and well-being,” Provost Scott Furlong said.

With the dawn of the new semester, students and academics are also left to adapt to the unprecedented circumstances ushered in by the virus’ spread, after university administrators, faculty and students decided earlier this summer to offer multiple modes of instruction.

In designing the “Forward” plan earlier this year, the previously mentioned parties came to the consensus to go ahead with the instruction of a determined number of courses divided in three categories: 30 percent of the offered classes are taking place in the traditional learning environment with reduced seating to follow social distancing guidelines, 40 percent of courses are offered online, and another 30 percent transitioned to hybrid instruction  — part online, part face-to-face instruction.

Amber Verrelli, a junior film student at the university, took her first synchronous online class at the beginning of this week.

“I prefer in-person classes because I like the structure they create,” Verrelli said in a Wednesday interview. “It can become very hard to stay organized and on top of assignments when you don’t have scheduled meetings throughout the week. In some cases, just one meeting a week isn’t enough because you can get caught up in other work and then it becomes too late.”

Despite having to adapt to the new course requirements, Verrelli said she remains confident her desired field of work is already adapting to some of the logistical constraints brought upon by the pandemic.

“I am fortunate enough that the two fields I have been looking into for my work life after college — film editing and graphic design — have become very dependent on computers over the years,” she said. “They have also become more and more remote, since it’s cheaper to pay someone to work from home and have them work on a server with others overseas than trying to get everyone in the same building to work on a project.”

Verrelli also praised the university’s efforts to mitigate risks during this complicated semester. She noted the “Oswego Forward” conditions are better preventive measures than what she sees at her retail job and in her community.

“I feel like the school’s guidelines are a lot better than most businesses right now,” she said. “As someone who has worked all through the pandemic so far, as well as switched jobs, I think the school is trying to make this semester safe for everyone.”

No matter the method of instruction, Rameen Mohammadi — a professor of computer science — noted there is “significant preparation” that goes into adapting to this new paradigm.

“I had to prepare videos of instruction, notes, online quizzes, and other components,” said Mohammadi, who currently teaches a face-to-face class and a lab. “These have improved the course I am teaching substantially and the information is always available to students when they need it, not just based on what was done in class or lab.”

Mohammadi says she is staying optimistic about the fate of the semester.

“Students appear to be as cautious as we are. As long as this is maintained I expect we will have a successful semester,” she said.

According to information released by college officials, 13 students are in travel advisory quarantine and one student is in on-campus isolation. At least one employee has tested positive as well since Aug. 12.

“SUNY Oswego students traveling or returning to New York State from an international destination or any of the states that Governor Cuomo has designated as restricted on a New York State travel advisory, must quarantine for 14 days (on campus or off),” college officials said. “To best serve our students and to assist them in complying with this State mandate, SUNY Oswego arranged for students to fulfill their 14-day precautionary quarantine on the SUNY Oswego campus (in established housing).”

Stanley also challenged students to become an example of how to properly adapt to the times.

“Others are watching and waiting to report on our success or our failure,” Stanley said. “As your president, I am watching; our neighbors are watching; SUNY and the Governor are closely watching to ensure our State institution is a model for others to follow.  Your families are watching, but most importantly, your fellow students are watching, calling on all of you to make the right choice and to be mindful of your actions and how they truly affect our ability to experience a safe, in-person semester on campus.”

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