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COLLEGE DURING COVID

Q&A with SUNY New Paltz President Donald P. Christian

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It's been almost a year since COVID-19 forced college leaders to shut down on-campus classes. At SUNY New Paltz, that meant figuring out how to bring study abroad students home, move 3,400 students out of residence halls, and transitioning to a virtual learning model. Spring break was extended by a week to give professors time to prepare to teach online. There was no playbook for making such sweeping changes. Through guidance from SUNY central, other institutions, and adaptation on the go, New Paltz brought just about half its students back to campus in the fall and relied on a mix of remote and in-person instruction. In January, I caught up with Donald P. Christian, the president at SUNY New Paltz. We recapped how the last year has played out and the promise of the coming semester.

—Katie Navarra

Looking back, what stands out about the early days of the pandemic?

Donald Christian: I remember going into a meeting in early March and when somebody extended their hand to shake, we bumped elbows instead. On March 4, 2020, we hosted two journalism leaders, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. and James H. Ottaway Jr. They were part of the SUNY New Paltz Distinguished Speaker Series and that was the last week of anything resembling normalcy.

The school's emergency management plan includes a pandemic section, but it was pretty general. We were scrambling hard with the many unknowns. Our study abroad students were the first group we needed to address as we were learning about the coronavirus. We asked ourselves, "Do we mandate them to return? Or do we encourage them to return?"

The fall semester went fairly well, all things considered. What will the spring semester look like at New Paltz?

There is cause for optimism for the spring semester based on the success in the fall. We are planning for the same mix of face-to-face and online classes, with about 25 being in-person. Our normal residency capacity is 3,400 students. We made the decision that we could safely house about 1,900 at reduced density by eliminating all triples. It ended up that we had 1,600 students who wanted to live in the residence halls, and we anticipate similar capacity in the spring.

There are some additional stipulations in the spring beyond what we did in the fall. Before students come to campus, they have to produce a negative test result three days before they return or within the first five days afterward.

Students can move back to campus on January 17 and the first day of classes is January 19. SUNY mandated all classes be held remotely until February 1, but we received special dispensation to start in-person classes for some upper-level laboratory, studio, and equipment courses a week earlier.

How have students responded to the stipulations and changes in the overall college experience?

I have been so impressed with our students' compliance with testing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. We have zero indication of any in-person transmission of COVID-19 in any of our classes. We had a couple of instances of transmission in residence halls, and we got on top of that quickly.

We are hearing that some students are deciding not to return to campus because of health fears. We're trying to help people understand that in many cases, being on campus in the fall was safer than being out in their communities.

Students have mixed responses to what it feels like being in college now. Some are saying the remote coursework is just not the same as being in a classroom on campus. Others are saying that having faculty in masks and sitting six feet apart with everyone in masks is just not an environment they want to be in. Then there are still others who say that yes, it's different, but I know I'm a college student on campus.

Colleges and universities were facing enrollment challenges pre-COVID. How do you think the pandemic will impact higher education in general?

We are finding a number of students opting out for a semester or perhaps longer. We're trying to help students and families understand the risks of not continuing their education if they drop out. As a public university, we service a diverse array of students from lower, lower-middle, and middle-class incomes. The financial impact of the pandemic has made cost a further challenge.

Generous donations from alumni have made crisis funds available to students. For some students, $1,000 may mean the difference between staying in or dropping out. We are hoping Congress passes a further stimulus bill to help our campus finances and student who have been impacted by the pandemic.

The pandemic has brought a few positive developments for education. What does that look like at New Paltz?

At the grocery store, I saw a faculty member who talked about how they had found a way to create small group discussions while students were doing asynchronous learning. When the students came into larger class discussions they brought the results of those earlier conversations into class and it has dramatically improved discussions. The faculty member plans to build that into their class even when we return to face-to-face classes.

Educational institutions have had to address the pandemic and social movements at the same time. How are you bringing all of that into the college experience?

Racial violence and increasing visibility of racial inequities have spurred some marvelous creativity on part of faculty. One faculty member incorporated sickle cell disease into their curriculum. Students of color have said it has meant a lot seeing course content directly relevant to their lives. It made the feel included in the curriculum. Across the campus, we are focusing on how we integrate a focus on racial inequality or racial dynamics into courses across the curriculum, so that it is not just covered in Black studies, political sciences, Latin American and Caribbean studies.

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