The State University of New York announced Tuesday it will require all students at its 64 campuses to test negative for COVID-19 10 days prior to being released for Thanksgiving break.
While many colleges and universities have taken proactive steps in offering testing for students who leave before the end of the fall semester, SUNY is one of the first higher education systems in the country to mandate it. With 140,000 students returning home and the potential for community spread, university leaders felt it was a vital safety measure.
“As in-person classes and instruction come to a close next month, tens of thousands of students will travel across the state and country to be with their families and complete their fall courses remotely,” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said in a release. “By requiring all students to test negative before leaving, we are implementing a smart, sensible policy that protects students’ families and hometown communities and drastically reduces the chances of COVID-19 community spread.
“While we understand there is a lot of focus on plans for the spring semester, we must first finish this semester safely. I want to thank our students for the phenomenal effort during these difficult times as well as SUNY health policy experts for helping us create this guidance that ensures a safe wind down of the fall semester.”
After Thanksgiving, almost all campus buildings and activities will be shut down and any SUNY academic work remaining will be completely online. SUNY is granting some exceptions on campus for students “with extenuating circumstances.”
One caveat in the new protocol is that students who have recovered from COVID-19 and might possess antibodies are not exempt from being tested again before the break. The guidelines also state students who take even one class and others who use facilities such as gyms, libraries and dining halls must be tested. SUNY is also recommending that all faculty and staff be tested, though it is not mandating it.
Because of the 10-day window, SUNY is urging its campuses to try to test students as close to their departure as possible. Otherwise, students who remain for those final days could in theory acquire the virus before returning home. It is also asking campus leaders to send students home as soon as they’ve received a negative test. Those who do test positive must follow quarantine and/or isolation guidelines as outlined by their colleges, who will be in contact with local public health officials.
Malatras says one of the reasons SUNY took the stance was because of rising infection rates across the country. SUNY campuses, all connected by a real-time COVID-19 dashboard, have conducted 270,000 tests of students, with a positivity rate of 0.52 percent. Recent data shows those numbers trending downward.
Higher education institutions across the country, while urging smart social distancing strategies and hygiene measures, are largely not forcing students to be tested before the Thanksgiving break yet.
The University of Arizona, for example, can require its on-campus students be tested and those will begin on Nov. 9. But it says it cannot force students living off campus to get them.
Penn State is offering voluntary testing during the middle of November. Although it urged in a release for “students to test during this departure window so that we have a record for everyone,” it is not mandating it.
Likewise, Virginia Tech has “invited and encouraged” students to be testing before the Thanksgiving break.
William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo., is not only asking its on-campus community to be tested but is offering free COVID tests to students, faculty and staff.
Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at [email protected]