LETTER from ANDREW STAMMEL
To the Editor:
The prosperity of Oneonta is inextricably intertwined with the success of its colleges. The fact that SUNY Oneonta’s reopening did not succeed as planned and hoped is a tragedy for our community in a year that challenges us all.
The shutdown is devas-tating for our students who have looked forward to their college experience; heartbreaking for the 1,000 SUNY employees who have worked since March to keep our students safe and provide a semblance of a college experience; frightening for our local business-owners; disappointing for residents who appreciate the vitality students bring; and challenging to taxpayers whose governments have just lost a large source of non-local revenue.
Some anxious residents have opined that with the sacrifices we have all made this year to keep the virus at bay, any increase in population density was unacceptable, be it from tourists, weekenders, or students.
I have elderly and vulnerable friends and family locally and can understand and empathize with this perspective.
The good news is that at this early stage, the outbreak appears to have been contained to students, due to the quick and decisive actions of SUNY, the rapid deployment of state resources, cooperation of community members, and ongoing heroics of our underfunded County Department of Health. Out of hundreds tested, no employees have tested positive and there’s no evidence of community spread yet.
While SUNY Oneonta began the school year with 97 percent of classes online, it joined the majority of colleges across the country in developing a hybrid plan that would allow for some level of in-person experience. This reflects a very American “can-do” attitude that with science and problem-solving, we can engineer our way around unprecedented challenges.
“Monday morning quarterbacking” is also an American pastime and the failure of the reopening has led to a misguided and gratuitous blame game by some local politicians and media (not this paper, to my knowledge). Kudos to those elected officials, administrators, and others who have maintained a positive forward-looking attitude, looking for collaborative solutions to protect folks and rebuild trust and relationships between the college and community.
In my conversations with contacts at several colleges, it’s clear to me that SUNY’s planning began earlier and was at least as collaborative, thorough and transparent as other institutions. From March – July, planning efforts invited input from all members of the college community and resulted in hundreds of pages of draft and final planning documents.
A proposed plan was submitted to and approved by the state and has been posted on the college web page for about two months. If your elected official is now one of the furious finger-pointers, ask them how they proactively contributed to crafting a safe reopening plan over the past six months or if they waited to retroactively criticize.
Any successful reopening will rely on three elements. Yes, a good plan must proactively be crafted (and no plan is perfect). Second, there needs to be widespread compliance with the plan and adherence to social distancing by students and employees. Finally, there is an element of luck or God’s will, whichever your persuasion.
Was an infected person a biological “super-spreader”? Did the wind or humidity contribute to spread on a given day? Did a bystander witness a party and report it to authorities in time? While humans like to believe our plans dictate results, much will be out of our control.
Every local college has had some level of outbreak already. This year may prove that for demographic and situational reasons, a residential college experience during a pandemic is unlikely to succeed.
Experience has shown the largest outbreaks are occurring in residential settings (nursing homes, jails, military, summer camps, sports teams, and colleges). Additionally, young people across the country have proved to be the least like to adhere to social distancing.
Despite the risks, does it mean we should not at least try to reopen our educational system? That is a question for every school and community. As K-12 schools across our area consider various reopening scenarios, I urge them to learn from our lessons. Be clear-eyed and accept that we are in a global pandemic and the virus is seeded throughout our area and outbreaks will occur as social distancing is lessened. Craft your outbreak prevention and response plans with care and humility. And finally, have the wisdom and strength to acknowledge when a situation has escalated beyond your control and shut it down, accordingly.
We all mourn the loss of normalcy this year and hope for a swift return to our old lives. Until that time, the best way to protect your loved ones and community is to wear masks, social distance, and practice good hygiene.
Town of Oneonta
County Representative: District 4
Town of Oneonta
Stammel, SUNY Oneonta
Title IX coordinator, said he submitted this letter from the perspective of
an elected official and private citizen,
not as a SUNY spokesman.