SUNY requires COVID tests for homebound students

Final exam: Before returning home for Thanksgiving break (and the remainder of the Fall 2020 semester), all SUNY students must be tested for COVID-19, according to a new State University system policy.

The State University of New York system has created an innovative safety net meant to catch COVID-positive students before they return home – and requiring individual schools to see to the needs of quarantined students, even when campuses are closed.

On Tuesday, SUNY announced a new system-wide policy requiring all on-campus students – including residential students and commuters who take in-person classes, eat in dining halls or otherwise use campus facilities – to take a COVID-19 test prior to the start of Thanksgiving break.

In light of the pandemic, this year’s Thanksgiving break will bring a hiatus for all SUNY on-campus programming; the remainder of the Fall 2020 semester is scheduled as a hodgepodge of distance learning, replete with Zoom classes and digital exams.

The new SUNY policy requires students to take a COVID test within 10 days of each student’s scheduled campus departure, including commuter students. The healthy – and those who haven’t been exposed to COVID-19 – can head home, or wherever their Thanksgiving plans take them.

But the sick, and those who have been exposed, must quarantine – and while non-resident students will be required to follow the guidance of their local health departments, individual SUNY schools must be prepared to accommodate residential students on campus, according to the SUNY Testing Policy for Departing Campus in Fall 2020.

Jim Malatras: You can’t go home again (without taking a COVID test first).

The plan essentially gives infected (and exposed) students the right of first refusal regarding on-campus quarantining; they must isolate, but SUNY can’t legally hold them. It also requires individual schools to be “fully attendant” to students who choose to quarantine on campus – part of a “smart, sensible policy that protects students’ families and hometown communities,” according to SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras.

“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,” Malatras noted Tuesday.

Stopping any of them from unwittingly carrying the disease home is the thrust of the new policy, which was reviewed and approved by a wide range of public health experts, including the dean of the University at Albany’s School of Public Health and the Upstate Medical University’s chairman of infectious diseases.

The plan has lots of moving parts. For starters, each campus must develop a schedule that conducts testing as close to each student’s departure date as possible – meaning SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities will test about 140,000 students between Nov. 15 and Nov. 25.

Since August, State University schools have conducted roughly 270,000 total tests, amassing a positivity rate of 0.52 percent, according to SUNY’s COVID-19 case tracker. With a testing crunch now mandated for next month, each school must submit a testing plan to SUNY central by Nov. 5.

State schools that have adopted weekly pooled-surveillance testing for students, including Stony Brook University, can apply to have their preexisting policy help fulfill this new requirement. But all schools must be ready to work with local health officials to isolate residential students who test positive – and see to their “varying needs throughout these quarantine and isolation periods,” the policy states.

It’s a lot to ask at the end of a challenging semester, but the ambitious plan “drastically reduces the chances of COVID-19 community spread,” according to Malatras.

“While we understand there is a lot of focus on plans for the spring semester, we must first finish this semester safely,” the chancellor added. “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.”