It was March 2020 and the State University of New York campus at Oneonta, where Herzig is mayor, had responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by abruptly switching to distance learning during the spring break. Some students were expected to return to dorms or off-campus apartments, and Herzig argued that they needed to be informed of public gatherings and other protocols related to Covid.
But Herzig and like-minded city officials got no further. Hal Legg, the campus chief communications officer, had told them he feared sending a message to students would "add fuel" to the fire, according to emails from city officials. Herzig picked up the subject on Barbara Jean Morris, who was then president of the campus.
"Today I saw groups of students in backyards playing beer pong without knowing that life had changed," Herzig wrote to Morris on March 20.
"This is serious," wrote Herzig. “We all sacrifice and isolate. This must also be said to our students. "
"Please," he added, "- why oppose sending a message?"
This wouldn't be the last time the President of Herzig and Oneonta disagreed on how to deal with the fleeting mix of 20 people partying in Oneonta and a deadly virus around the city.
Located at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, Oneonta is a town of approximately 14,000 residents, half of whom are either SUNY campus or Hartwick College students. As in so many university towns, peace in Oneonta rests on subtle truces between year-round residents and students. Covid-19 puts these fragile compacts to a new and tougher test. This test comes at a critical moment when the safety and long-term prosperity of both colleges and the cities they call hometowns depend heavily on strong partnerships between local officials and campus leaders.
In the fall, Oneonta residents prepared for the reality that some partying college students could become viral superspreaders. Their fears turned out to be justified. House parties popped across town the weekend before classes started, sparking an outbreak that days later forced campus to put classes online for the duration of the semester. The impact was significant, bringing SUNY-Oneonta's national notoriety as an example of a failed reopening that strained relationships with local leaders and ended Morris' presidency.
As remarkable as the case of SUNY-Oneonta may have been, the crisis can be traced back in part to a very common problem in higher education: the campus' relationship with the community was not as strong as necessary, so tensions over those responsible could wallow for students off campus at the intersection of city and robe.
Fighting the pandemic requires a certain amount of coordination between officials and university leaders on multiple fronts. Enforcement, public messaging, transportation, and Covid testing are common challenges facing community and campus leaders who must put their differences aside to face an ongoing crisis like they have never experienced before.
At the national level, the talk about Covid is shifting from how colleges can keep their campus secure to how they can protect their surrounding communities as well. The University of California at Davis, for example, played a special role expansive viewand offers free coronavirus testing and other resources to tens of thousands of people who live or work in the city in Davis, whether or not they are affiliated with the university.
Davis' approach comes at a high price, but other colleges are making less costly changes. For example, the University of Colorado at Boulder has updated its Student Code of Conduct to include public health regulations that students must follow whether they are on campus or off campus. Last semester, the SUNY Oswego campus helped its local mayor Set up tests for the city's key workers, including police officers and firefighters.
As Oneonta found out, the alternative to stronger collaboration is not a nice one. What happened there, which has been linked through public documents as well as interviews with local officials, professors, students, and administrators, is a cautionary story for college leaders faced with new dynamics in their communities.
In an email, Morris highlighted the students rather than the entire community and risked "keeping the mentality between us and them".
Morris declined an interview request.
The email exchange includes 55 pages of notices about Covid-19 provided by the City of Oneonta The Chronicle in response to a request for public records. The Chronicle, SUNY-Oneonta submitted a similar application in early December, but the university has not yet submitted any relevant documents.
What can be recognized even from this limited number of e-mails are critical moments when the city and campus either disagreed at all on questions of tone and strategy or simply seemed to be talking past each other. According to an expert, mayors and college presidents would ideally issue joint messages about the pandemic.
"That's half the battle, isn't it?" says Stephen M. Gavazzi, a professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University who consults with colleges on community relations. "When you post joint messages, it means you are speaking."
Working together has always been desirable, says Gavazzi, but the pandemic has made it mandatory. "If you haven't done this type of work before, you should do this work better now."
Herzig needed the students back for all of his worries. The city of Oneonta, which has an annual budget of $ 15 million, lost about $ 2 million a semester if the campus closed in the fall and spring. From an economic point of view, a Oneonta does not work without SUNY.
At the same time, many in Oneonta felt that the campus test plan for its 6,000 returning students was flawed. Unlike Hartwick, SUNY-Oneonta did not require returning students to provide evidence of a recent negative Covid-19 test or to be tested on arrival. The campus, which could only test 12-14 students per day, had planned to test sewage to detect outbreaks in dormitories.
Gina L. Keel, professor of political science at Oneonta, says the decision not to test students was “crazy and money driven.
"That was a fatal decision," she says. "I thought it was negligent, frankly."
SUNY-Oneonta has criticized its test plan a lot, but was hardly alone in its approach. All 64 SUNY locations resumed some form of face-to-face tuition in the fall, and only six had to be tested on arrival or shortly before, says Holly Liapis, a SUNY spokeswoman.
SUNY headquarters approved Oneonta's plan and initially did not allow a campus to test students.
"I'm also someone who points the finger at the SUNY system and gets it approved for a plan that wasn't a big plan," says Keel. "Why are 64 locations finding out how to track and control with little systematicity?"
In response to this criticism, Liapis said in an email The Chronicle: “Any plan is only as good as its implementation. When this happens, you need leaders who can review the evidence in front of them, engage key stakeholders, and act quickly when issues arise. Some similar plans in other locations did not have the same outcome as at SUNY-Oneonta. "
A total of five SUNY locations suspended personal classes for some time in the fall due to Covid, but only SUNY-Oneonta sent students home, Liapis confirmed.
Diane M. Georgeson, Oneonta's health officer, says she doesn't blame campus for lack of early-stage testing that was about resources and availability.
"They tried as best they could," she says. "Trust me, they really tried."
"What I would be critical of," says Georgeson, "was the attitude of the campus administration that the off-campus students were not necessarily their problem or their responsibility."
City officials were concerned about what they saw as the very likely scenario: crowds of unsupervised students living and partying in the city that was practically the city's problem. The local police, only 25 strong, were no match for the thousands that could end up in downtown bars or at house parties. And no help came.
Herzig had asked Morris to use the campus police force with 11 officers to assist local law enforcement agencies. She wouldn't do it and say she was being trapped in the judiciary.
“We have limited knowledge of how, when and where we can help other jurisdictions. We don't just turn down requests from the city, ”she wrote in an email to the mayor on August 6th.
The policing debate revealed another key difference in how the city and campus viewed the pandemic. From a legal point of view, Herzig viewed Covid-19 as an "emergency" that would enable the Oneonta Police Department and the campus police to work together in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding. SUNY-Oneonta's response indicated that its leaders viewed the threat differently.
"I understand that you can certainly decline our OPD's request in this case, as you do not see the current pandemic threat as an emergency," Herzig wrote to Morris. “When I talk to lawyers, mayors and other SUNY presidents, I realize that this is more of a cultural problem than a legal one. There are UPDs out there that offer a lot of off-campus assistance in monitoring their students while others refuse to do so. "
Hoping to stem the tide of students pouring into the city center, the city decided to restrict local bus traffic from the campus and cancel it at 6:00 p.m. The mayor didn't have the authority to close bars – that would have to come from the governor, he said – but he could make it harder for students to get to them.
This also caused friction with the university. The student union began researching alternative nighttime transportation, a move that Campus Activities and Leadership Director Bill Harcleroad defended as necessary to make shopping easier – not bar hopping.
"All of this could have been avoided," wrote Harcleroad in an email to the mayor and other city officials on August 20, "if the city of Oneonta had only asked instead of trying to pit and incite different campus people against each other / Reflect the students' fears. "
Students, he added, "know where to feel welcome and where not to." This whole process only reinforces their perception that they are not considered as oneantans, but as outsiders. "
Harcleroad declined an interview request.
At this point the students were already moving into dormitories. The relationship between the city and campus was about to face a much bigger test.
Sergeants on duty reports Herzig shared with Morris painted a terrifying picture: an "ABSOLUTE EXPLOSION of house parties" across town with "hundreds or even thousands" of students, none of whom wore masks.
“A quick and easy solution to this would be to increase the arrests for such parties,” reported a sergeant, “but we just did can not keep going."
"The students do not heed the warnings," said another broadcast, "and it seems that the way to college is more like their" escape from Covid "."
On August 25th, one day after class started, SUNY-Oneonta reported the first two positive cases. Georgeson, the city's health officer, urged campus leaders for more information about off-campus student testing and expressed frustration at the lack of responses.
"I think this was not an inappropriate request," wrote Georgeson in an email to Colleen Brannan, chief of staff at SUNY-Oneonta, on Aug. 27. "I am disappointed," she added, "that I have not received any information from you."
The whole time the party continued. Local police released the names of the perpetrators to university officials, who promised to make a quick decision. Suspensions were rare: only five students after the first weekend and three campus organizations. Alerts were issued to 168 students, which was the most common sanction, according to data from The Chronicle from campus.
On August 30th, Jim Malatras, Chancellor of the SUNY system, Directed by Oneonta Switch to online classes for two weeks, citing 105 confirmed Covid cases or 3 percent of the campus population. With the support of a team from SUNY Upstate Medical University, Oneonta escalated the tests for students. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo said he would use a "SWAT team" to test local residents.
I am talking about a podium On a campus lawn, Malatras said, “Today is a difficult day for SUNY-Oneonta, but hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call that Covid-19 is not finished yet, that it can straighten its ugly head and straighten its ugly head quickly. "
The chancellor was flanked by some officers masked some distance away. The mayor stood on one side; the president on the other hand.
Designed by the mayor as a place for college leaders, city officials, and students to share information, the group convened on August 31 for a grim trial. Oneonta's president admitted that Covid is "moving fast and hard" and cited more than 200 positive cases – twice as many as the day before.
The next day, when more test results came in, Morris said she was expecting "a very large number".
University officials attributed the outbreak to an off-campus party hosted by three sports teams the weekend before class began.
The mayor who chaired the meeting gave the floor to Margaret L. Drugovich, who had served as Hartwick's president for 12 years. Drugovich stressed the college's rigorous code of conduct and early testing as critical to his strategy. At Oneonta, Drugovich had been viewed as a kind of slide for Morris, a two-year president whom some found reluctant to play Heavy.
On the advice of the Otsego County Department of Health, Drugovich said Hartwick College directed its students "not to contact members of the SUNY Oneonta community."
Hartwick shielded himself from a population believed to have been infected with infections. When Oneonta students came to Hartwick campus, as they sometimes did at the invitation of Hartwick students, they were given improper citations, Drugovich later said The Chronicle.
Hartwick, however, had the luxury of retreating within its own limits in ways that SUNY-Oneonta could not. Hartwick's typical enrollment of around 1,200 is not only much smaller, but roughly 87 percent of the college's students live on campus, Drugovich said. The only exceptions are students in Greek apartments and local commuters.
Banning SUNY-Oneonta would be like playing Whac-A-Mole all over town. Not that the campus even knew where to look. When city officials in multiple email exchanges urged Morris for information about the off-campus population, the president informed them they did not know where there were local students or how many there were in the area.
"I think the best way to measure this information is to ask landlords about housing capacity and vacancy rates," wrote Morris in an email.
Over the course of the semester, Hartwick had 73 positive Covid-19 cases and never more than 31 at any given time, Drugovich said.
"The only conclusion that fits the evidence: your draconian measures worked," said Ronald E. Bishop, vice president for academics at Oneonta's chapter of United University Professions, a union that represents faculties and professionals.
While the control room members pondered, the students on the Oneonta campus recorded on social media what was like life in a science fiction movie. Video on twitter students who tested positive for Covid-19 showed that they were led out of the dormitories by someone in a protective suit in the dark of the night.
On September 3rd, three days after the control room meeting, the Chancellor announced that the campus would go online for the remainder of the semester, with nearly 400 cases cited.
It was September 4, the night after Oneonta finally went online, and local police were responding to a noise complaint in an off-campus dormitory.
This was no tantrum by college standards. Even so, there was now ample evidence of what this group of about 15 exposed students packed into a garage yelling over music loud enough to be heard from the street could do. However, one of the hosts said he still did not understand.
"Can you explain the problem to me?" he asked the officer.
A body camera recording of the incident provided by the city The Chronicle In response to a request for public records, shows the frustrations both local law enforcement and students experienced during the crisis.
Some of the students who tested negative for Covid told police they assumed they could congregate now. The police officers, in turn, had to explain the intricacies of the Covid protocols, provided the students had signed any codes of conduct that they had ignored.
That's how it went.
Student: "No, I have not signed a waiver."
Officer: "Well, then you're lying."
Student: "I'm not lying."
Officer: "You are."
Student: "I promise you, I haven't signed anything and I'm going to this school."
Second officer: "I will not discuss this with you."
The student did not lie and the officials were not wrong. Government guidelines did not bless the congregation, but the student had not "signed" anything. A “Safety Action Plan” was provided to the students, but they did not have to sign it. It included 16 bullet points instructing students to follow state and local guidelines on masking and social distancing. Nothing was said about what would happen if the students did not obey.
"It wasn't as clear and specific as I think it should have been," says Herzig, the mayor.
City of Oneonta
In response to a noise complaint on Sept. 4, officers from the Oneonta Police Department attempt to enforce the Covid-19 protocols at a meeting of SUNY students. The Chronicle protects the identity of the exposed student as this is not relevant to our reporting.
When police cited the students that night for noise violations, the interactions continued to develop. A student mocked an officer for not attending college. (The officer said he served in the military.) Twice a student joked that an officer's flashlight was like a "dildo".
At one point during their lengthy dialogue, one official stated, "You are not the only people living in this city."
That same night, a photo that was supposed to be spread on social media Define image from SUNY-Oneonta's wrong semester: A group of students partying in a quarantine dormitory, standing in front of the camera and seeming to have the time of their lives.
Malatras, the Chancellor, told the story The New York Times that his "blood boiled" when he saw it. Three weeks later he introduced a "uniform sanctions policy" that standardizes the punishment for violations of Covid-19.
Then on October 15, Malatras announced that Dennis Craig, interim president of the Purchase campus, would take over as acting president of Oneonta. Buried deep in one Press release The appointment confirmed that Morris "had moved from her position as president to pursue other opportunities."
Morris has a "six month engagement" with the SUNY system, Liapis, the SUNY spokeswoman, said in an email to The Chronicle. In this role, the former president will work on "the framework for general education to empower students to meet the changing needs of the 21st century," Liapis said.
Morris' exit was a standard crisis response that signaled a fresh start. But for many people on campus it didn't end up like that. Had Oneonta really dealt with what had gone wrong? Did the SUNY system take any responsibility for its role? Emma M. Sarnacki has her doubts.
"SUNY-Oneonta was a convenient scapegoat as a campus, and she was a convenient scapegoat as a person," says Sarnacki, a doctoral student in museum studies. "The vengeful part of human nature wants that person to be gone, and when there is new leadership people tend to assume that everything has changed and we can move on."
Sarnacki, who unsuccessfully campaigned for a better system for reporting Covid violations in the fall, said the administration had become more cooperative in recent months.
"Although I'm disappointed that the failures have put a huge strain on the community," she says, "I look forward to the chances of an improved relationship going forward."
The document generally lacks specificity about how the outbreak actually took place, what tensions existed between city and university officials, or who made what decisions. It's a master class in "strategic ambiguity," says Kristen C. Blinne, associate professor of communication studies.
"It reads as if it had gone through a legal team and was refurbished for public consumption," says Blinne.
Some professors believe that a blunt draft of the retrospective, written by a committee of faculty members, was more open than the final product. The Chronicle filed a request for public records for the draft, but campus withheld the document, referring to an exception in state law for records that are not "agency final guidelines or regulations."
However, changes have been made that directly indicate issues that have arisen between the city and campus. Craig, the new incumbent president, has created a position at the cabinet level: the vice president for foreign affairs will serve as a liaison with the city and the off-campus students.
In another change, the campus police chief will report directly to Craig. Unlike in the autumn, he says, the campus troops will support the local police if necessary.
Craig says he doesn't want to label his predecessor's approach as "Monday morning quarterback". Even so, Craig emphasizes the importance of "high-touch types of interactions" with city officials that he hopes will "mitigate the overall environment."
"All of these people have my direct contact information," says Craig of the mayor and others. "They have my cell phone number – after hours. That way we can build a relationship and trust so that we can serve our institutions well in both good times and bad."
As Craig sees it, his job is "to get people to move beyond pain and fear."
The students must now sign a “Declaration of Shared Responsibility” which contains a promise of conduct and states that failure to comply can lead to sanctions. The Spring schedule requires students living in the Oneonta area to provide local addresses, and each week 10 percent of those students are selected for randomized surveillance testing. (Students on campus are tested weekly).
Sustainable communication and collaboration with the local community is critical, says Amanda L. Finch, assistant vice president, student development.
"It's not something that we can just establish and then walk away."
However, there is still a gap between the optimistic narrative of the SUNY-Oneonta administration and the skeptical faculty members. More than 700 people have signed one petition against what some professors see as an implicit mandate to return to face-to-face teaching. According to its own information, the campus will be offering 20 percent of the courses in person this spring, compared to 3 percent in autumn.
In Oneonta there is a feeling that the campus and the city have only one chance to get it right. So far, the mayor likes the changes he's seeing. Finding a way to work together is not an option, says Herzig. The stakes are too high.
"It brings us all down – college, the wider community, our business world," he says. "We all make it together or fail together."
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