As CDC says universities increase infection rates, local leaders lay out plans to control the virus

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“Our hope is to deliver a better experience in the spring,” said Christopher Gibson, president of Siena College.

ALBANY COUNTY — Leaders of the large state university and of two of the colleges in Albany County spoke Friday about how their institutions are integral to the community.

That may not bode well as a study by federal investigators, posted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website earlier this month, shows how, for the fall semester, in counties where large universities held in-person classes, cases of coronavirus rose by more than 56 percent in the 21 days after classes started compared to the 21 days before.

In similar-sized nearby counties without large colleges or universities, COVD-19 cases decreased by 6 percent during similar timeframes, the study found.

Counties where universities used remote-only instruction had about an 18-percent decline during the 21 days before through the 21 days after the start of classes while counties with in-person classes at their universities, again, saw an increase of over 56 percent in COVID-19 incidence.

The study was conducted in August when Albany County, like most places across the nation, had a much lower infection rate than currently. The University at Albany ended its in-class instruction ahead of the planned end to the fall semester because of a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The CDC study says this about the implications for public-health practice: “Additional implementation of effective mitigation activities at colleges and universities with in-person instruction could minimize on-campus COVID-19 transmission and reduce county-level incidence.”

Those were the sort of strategies that the three higher-education leaders addressed at Friday’s press conference hosted by Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy.



Havidán Rodríguez, president of the University at Albany, said that since last semester the university has learned “valuable lessons about what works and what does not work.”

The university, part of a 64-campus state system, has about 18,000 students, most of them learning at the uptown campus in Guilderland and Albany or at the downtown campus in Albany; the university also has a health-science campus in Rensselaer.

Everyone on campus — students, faculty, and staff — is tested weekly for COVID-19, Rodríguez said. Since Sept. 1, over 45,000 tests have been conducted with a positivity rate of less than 1 percent, he reported. That system, he said, “allows us to monitor any asymptomatic spread.”

Students will be required to have tested negative before they arrive on campus, Rodríguez said.

Through the university’s RNA Institute, which developed pooled surveillance testing, 2,500 people on campus will be tested each day, he said. Also, he said, the university has expanded the number of testing kits given to students who live off-campus. And, there is a new automated surveillance system to assure testing compliance.

“We’re expecting about 3,800 students to come back to the university to our apartments and residence halls,” Rodríguez said. The occupancy rate will be about 50 percent.

The start of the spring semester has been delayed to Feb. 1, about 10 days later than usual. There will be no spring break and classes will end on May 15.

Sixty-two percent of courses will be taught remotely, 29 percent will be taught in person, and 9 percent will be hybrid — a combination of in-person and remote learning, Rodríguez said. Because the in-person courses tend to have small enrollment, 85 percent of instructional seats will be online, he said.

For this semester, 337 rooms on campus have been set aside for students to isolate or quarantine.

Students will be required to have tested negative before they arrive on campus, Rodríguez said. The dashboard website, reporting on confirmed COVID-19 cases, will go live on Monday.

UAlbany’s uptown campus has long been a site for state COVID-19 testing and this month also became a site for the state to administer vaccinations.


Saint Rose

“These are incredibly difficult times and they call for difficult decisions,” said Marcia White, the acting president of The College of Saint Rose, a private school with about 3,000 students.

The college is located in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany, which White pointed out is in the 12203 ZIP code with “record-breaking infection rates,” consistently the highest in Albany County.

Saint Rose students returned to class on Jan. 19 and the first two weeks of instruction have been remote. On Feb. 1, classes will be in person, remote, and hybrid.

Just over a third of the students living on campus have returned early, White said. “We expect close to 900 will come back for spring semester.” The last group will move in on Jan. 30 and 31.

All students and staff will be tested for COVID-19 before arrival on campus, she said, and there will be weekly on-campus testing. Also, students and employees file daily screening forms.

Masks are required on campus and no guests are allowed on campus, White said; also, there are no gatherings allowed.

Since Aug. 24, 2020, Saint Rose had 73 positive COVID-19 tests among 2,800 students and 730 employees, White said. Since the spring semester started, there have been 13 positive tests.

College IDs are active only with negative test results.

The goal, said White, is to reduce community transmission.



This semester, Siena College — a private Franciscan liberal arts college in Loudonville — will be spreading its students out in classrooms, at least six feet apart, said Christopher Gibson, the college’s president.

The semester will begin on Feb. 22 and, with no spring break, will conclude with exams from May 22 to 26. The commencement ceremony will return to the campus, in an outdoor setting, which is safer, Gibson said.

Of the college’s roughly 3,000 students, 2,100 will return to on-campus residency, 500 prefer remote learning, and 400 will commute to campus, Gibson said. A little over half will start in-person instruction.

On April 1, he said, a “tent city will go up” to expand in-person instruction. Once the 40-by60-foot tents are erected, the plan is to end the semester with as much as 75 percent in-person instruction, Gibson said.

Siena will test the wastewater from residence halls to get a jumpstart on learning if there are COVID-19 infections on campus.

“In addition, we do daily screening,” said Gibson.

Five-hundred staffers are now eligible for vaccinations, said Gibson, and some have gotten their first shot. The college has volunteered to be a point of dispensing.

He concluded, “Our hope is to deliver a better experience in the spring.”


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