ALBANY – Hundreds of thousands of public university students in New York State will see an end to their on-campus spring classes after officials Wednesday ordered a shift to online coursework commencing as early as March 19 in the latest attempt to try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The move, following in the footsteps of a growing number of private colleges, affects all 64 campuses of the State University of New York – including community colleges – as well as the City University of New York.
The news, while not surprising, disrupts plans for college students across the state, interrupts internships and on-campus jobs, and will hurt the economies of dozens of communities that rely heavily on students and their spending on everything from restaurant meals to clothing.
College officials stressed the campuses will not close and that students can still choose to remain in dorms – though they may see all of their classes, depending on their coursework, shift to online-only offerings.
The impact will be sweeping, and students Wednesday were left wondering how academic coursework will be completed, how their financial aid might be affected and whether SUNY will refund a portion of their unused room and board expenses.
Many students are set to head off on spring break Thursday, and they were scrambling to determine if they should move out of their dorms as soon as then. The SUNY campuses, including the community colleges, have nearly 416,000 students; CUNY has about 275,000 students spread across New York City.
“That will be a way to reduce density and that’s a good thing," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in announcing the plan Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm relieved," said Stacy Hubbard, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo's English Department. "It needed to happen. There are lots of ways online learning can be collaborative, intensive, productive. I think if we all share ideas and resources, we can make it work for students. The students will, I think, be grateful not to be crowded into classrooms with others who may be or become sick. And so will I."
At first, the governor said campuses would be shuttered. That was quickly amended to say that campuses will remain mostly open, but that in-person classes will be largely canceled. Some “hardship” cases, such as students who don’t have anywhere to move right now, will be permitted to stay in dorms. That, too, was further amended later in the day.
The fast-moving situation developed through the afternoon.
“I believe that no one will be forced to leave. That’s my understanding at 4:30 on Wednesday," said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Assembly Higher Education Committee with oversight of the SUNY and CUNY systems.
Holly Liapis, a SUNY spokeswoman, said Glick’s understanding is correct. Campus-by-campus decisions about course offerings, schedules and other details will be worked on while students are away on spring break and will be communicated to students during their vacation.
It is also uncertain whether the plan to move to distance-learning classwork can be smoothly achieved across all campuses, either for technological reasons or the fact that many professors are not accustomed to distance-learning programs – a problem some private colleges across the country are already discovering.
Elizabeth Garvey, special counsel to Cuomo, said plans are still being developed to ensure online courses will be offered as replacements to in-person teaching by professors. Certain classes, such as labs for science students and others, will remain open for in-person work in some way. Garvey said SUNY expects most spring graduation ceremonies to be canceled this year.
The hardship exceptions were not immediately clarified.
“There will be problems," said Sen. Toby Stavisky, a Queens Democrat and chair of the Senate higher education committee that has oversight over SUNY and CUNY.
But New York had no other choice to try to slow the spread of the contagious coronavirus, she said.
“We’ve never been in this situation before and we’re demonstrating that the state is responding as best as we can," Stavisky added.
Glick said a host of questions were raised Wednesday by the Cuomo announcement that she said was not shared with lawmakers in advance. Are only undergraduate students affected? What happens to homeless students or those with no computers at home or those in rural areas with spotty or no internet connections? How are students whose majors demand lab-based courses going to cope? How will professors who don’t do distance learning suddenly switch gears to teach online courses for the next few months?
It is also still unclear if unused room and board expenses will be reimbursed. Liapis said discussions about that issue are still underway.
Students who stay on campus could find themselves taking all their courses online. Classes that will still be offered in person, such as labs, could be split up to create sessions with fewer students.
Though the decision left some students dazed, some sort of reaction by SUNY was inevitable given the changes being made across the board at schools, businesses and even in the homes of Americans.
“There are disruptions for everybody," Glick said. "Certainly, an infectious disease for which there is not a vaccine nor treatment is serious business."
As SUNY advanced its plan, Niagara University said it also is extending its spring break to two weeks beginning Saturday, to allow for social distancing over that time. But the school as of today doesn’t anticipate shifting to remote-only instruction, according to the Rev. James Maher, Niagara’s president.
Instead, graduate students will resume normal instruction on March 28 and undergraduates will do so on March 30. The school will spend the two-week break making decisions about hosting on-campus events.
SUNY students had many questions.
“Students want to be assured that their ability to graduate won’t be impeded," said Austin Ostro, president of the Student Assembly of the State University of New York, the student government organization that represents SUNY students.
Ostro said students were preparing for such an announcement after dozens of private colleges canceled the remainder of on-campus spring classes.
“There’s some uncertainty from students, but students thought this was the appropriate decision to make and in the best interest of their safety and well-being," he added.
The University at Buffalo said it is ready to put its plans in place for online and off-campus instruction beginning March 23. Officials said planning has been underway for a month.
In a message emailed Wednesday to students, faculty and staff, UB President Satish Tripathi said that while in-person instruction will be reduced, the campus will keep functioning as usual.
“As we move to a distance-learning model of instruction, UB will remain open, and UB’s campus operations will continue without interruption," Tripathi said. “This includes residence halls, campus dining, student academic support and health services, university libraries, transportation, campus safety and all other university services."
He added that “all professional obligations of UB faculty and staff remain unaffected."
Tripathi said that A. Scott Weber, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, who has been leading preparations for the transition, will provide further updates via email.
Tripathi noted that more information will be posted on UB’s COVID-19 website, buffalo.edu/coronavirus.
SUNY Buffalo State said spring break will be extended to two weeks – March 14 to March 29 – to prepare for remote instruction starting March 30. The last day of in-person instruction will be Friday.
SUNY Buffalo State President Katherine Conway-Turner said in a statement that staff and faculty "will work tirelessly to make any accommodation necessary to ensure that your academic progress is not slowed by this decision. If you are on track to graduate this semester, you will stay on track to graduate."
The school will work with residential students who expect they won't return to campus following spring break, as well as with students who feel they must stay on campus during the break and for the rest of the semester, Conway-Turner said. However, dining and other services may be reduced to limit large gatherings.
Erie Community College says it has received little information on what’s expected of the college.
“At this point, we are awaiting direction from SUNY," spokeswoman Paula Sandy said.
ECC president Dan Hocoy, in a statement issued late Wednesday, said all of the college’s large-scale events will be canceled until further notice.
He said the decision affects open houses, career fairs and transfer fairs that ECC had scheduled during the week of March 30.
Hocoy noted that the college’s three campuses will remain open for the rest of the semester, “but there may be changes to the delivery method of some of our classes.”
Changes to class schedules will be announced Thursday, he said. Updates are available at ecc.edu/Coronavirus-information.
What about college sports teams?
"I don't know," Cuomo said.
UB spokesman John DellaContrada said the university will have flexibility for courses that are difficult or impossible to replicate online, such as those that require clinical training.
– Staff Reporter Stephen Watson contributed to this report.