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by Thomas Loos

SUNY at Binghamton had a robust COVID-19 plan for the Fall 2020 Semester.  With an initial goal of staying below 100 COVID-19 positive students, faculty, or staff on a two-week rolling period, the University implemented a variety of precautions and policies in order to keep students safe.  Currently, the Restarting Binghamton web page lists the University’s goals as being:

§  Protect the health and safety of everyone associated with the University: students, faculty, staff and community members.

§  Maximize the value of our education by maintaining access for all students admitted to the University regardless of economic means, and maximize the success of all of our students to enhance their lives and futures.

§  Sustain the research activities of the University to the greatest extent possible. 

§  Contribute to the economic recovery of our region.

The goals are clear.  Keep students, faculty, and staff safe, while keeping education sufficient, and keep research going.  Furthermore, contributing to the economic growth and recovery of the Binghamton community is also a factor at play.  These words show that Binghamton is trying to keep the community safe, while keeping the education quality.  However, actions speaking louder than words; the University has consistently put students last, behind policies that are meant to help the university fiscally, as well as enhance public relations. 

Remote Learner Designation

The decision to declare yourself as a remote learner is a monumental one.  Do you feel safe coming to online classes, considering the Fall Semester’s two shutdowns?  Is it worth giving up clubs, sports, or other recreational social-distanced activities we have come to love to pass time to stay safe at home with your family?  Well, whether being a remote learner is right for any particular student, a big factor is universal, how many of your classes are going to be online anyways?  A student who is taking four classes, three of which are online, would more strongly consider being remote.  Perhaps all of a student’s classes are in person, and they want to be there.  On the other extreme, what if a student had all their classes online?  Knowing your potential options for your schedule is a big deal.  The problem is that the deadline to declare oneself a remote learner was 11-4-2020, whilst the schedule of classes was not released until 12-2-2020.  Nearly a whole month before students could even know what their options for classes were, they were forced to make this monumental decision.  Students were entrapped into either giving up in-person learning, with the possibility of most classes being traditional learning, or committing to in-person learning, with the possibility of just one of their classes being in-person. 

Dormitory Cancellations

For students living on campus, not coming back to campus for the spring semester and becoming a remote learner could be a painful decision.  Even with social distancing, living on campus gives an opportunity to be around many different diverse people, despite being six feet apart.  Living away from home gives students’ independence, freedom, and, for many, joy.  However, with the Fall semester seeing cases rising above the ‘shutdown threshold’ of 100 cases twice, students with preexisting conditions, or families with similar conditions, may not have felt safe.  If the potential health risks of being on campus outweighed the benefits, cancelling housing for Spring 2021 could have been the safest option.  However, Binghamton University and Cayuga Community college were the only two universities that would not even offer a chance of a refund for Spring housing based on an anonymous survey.  Before a student even steps foot in the room, they are forced to pay for it.  Alfred State, Brockport, University at Buffalo, SUNY Canton, SUNY Delhi, Farmingdale State College, SUNY Fredonia, SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Maritime, SUNY New Paltz, and SUNY Plattsburgh all would give a full refund if a student felt unsafe going into the Spring 2021 semester.  Other SUNY universities would entertain the thought of giving a refund, though not guaranteed.  Binghamton University was one of two that simply gave a hard no.

Students who cannot cancel housing are paying for it anyway, enticing them to come back to the University to not just throw thousands of dollars down the drain, even if coming back to campus feels unsafe to them.  Furthermore, allowing people to refund housing would decrease the density of the on-campus population, meaning, simply, a safer environment for those that returned to campus.  What happened to protecting the health and safety of everyone associated with the University?  Well, health and safety come second to the tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars that can come from not offering a partial nor a full refund.  This policy exists to help the budget, not the students. 

Poor, Unprofessional Communication Regarding COVID Policy

The first time Binghamton University went ‘on pause’ for the fall semester began on  10-8-2020.  With no in-person classes, on campus activities, or even sit-in dining, many students considered leaving the campus for some or all of the pause.  At 5:32 PM on 10-8-2020, more than 17 hours into the first day of the pause, Binghamton University Residential Life sent out an email stating that students who left campus “for the duration of the pause” may not return for the remainder of the fall semester.  Now, this policy won’t be critiqued, as it came from the SUNY level.  It is rumored that Binghamton would allow students to come back, provided they tested negative upon arrival, which is a very pro-student policy, though this never came to fruition.  However, this email was very unprofessional, and poorly worded.  No header/signature, just a wall of text that seemed to be typed up quickly by any random person in res-life.  The ‘for the duration of the pause’ was the most deceiving part.  What if students were already planning on going home for a day or two on the weekend?  What if students had a med-school interview, and planned on staying over the night before their big day?  What about students that have already departed, and were long gone?  If students did not stay for the full ‘duration’ of the pause, would they be barred from coming back?  With this confusion, I personally reached out to residential life asking for answers, within 20 minutes of the initial email.   They did not reply for more than five hours, at nearly 11 PM at night, with a dry reply that echoed policy.  No sympathy given for individual circumstances, or anything alike. 

Now, in spring 2021, the confusing policy changes continue.  On Monday, February 22, 2021, it was announced that all on-campus activities will be cancelled, except for in-person classes.  The cancellations are as follows:

• All non-classroom student activities, including Greek life.

• All student group dance rehearsals and other non-academic student activities.

• All intercollegiate athletics, club sports and intramurals.

• All performances of any kind.

In addition:

• All dining facilities will be take-out only.

• The Rec Center at the East Gym is closed.

• All residential hall lounges will be off limits.

• The ice skating rink is closed.

• OCCT will run only during class times.

Now, with COVID cases on the rise, this seems to be a good measure to keep students safe from contracting and spreading the virus.  However, this pseudo-shutdown was put into effect with no warning.  Furthermore, the University is less than halfway to the 5.0% positivity rate on a rolling 14-day average that mandates a shutdown. The administration did not attempt to scale-back certain high-risk areas of campus living; they simply shut it all down.  This was the simplest and easiest solution.  Of nearly 46,000 COVID-19 cases that were contact traces in New York, less than 0.075% of them came from gyms.  Binghamton University’s rec center is restricted to time slots of a limited capacity, low enough that social distance is always maintained in the space.  Did the University reduce the gym capacity by 10, 20, 50, 75, or even as much as 90%?  No, they simply shut it down, as it was just the easiest solution to enact without the student body in mind. This policy, though protecting students from the virus, seems to neglect the fact that ‘health’ also has a mental component. When will students be able to return to the gym to exercise and decompress?  When will athletes be able to see their teammates again?  When will students be able to leave their dorm room, their primary place of study, to grab a bite to eat and simply not be cooped up in their workspace?  The answer to that, is “Until further notice”.  There is no specified end to the pseudo-pause.  If the positivity rate drops below 2%, 1%, 0.5%, there’s still no discretion as to what will cause this halt of services to stop, or any time scale as to when it may be ending.  How can the University “…maintain access for all students admitted to the University regardless of economic means”, when Work-Study students do not even know how much longer they will be out of work for this pause? However, not everything is cancelled.  In-person learning still continues.  If it is not evidently clear, this decision was made to ensure that the University can still, potentially, go a whole semester without ceasing online learning.  The University simply wants the talking point of making a whole semester of ‘traditional’ learning.  If the administration truly wanted to stop the spread, why would they simply shut down everything for this undefined length of time?  Well, this is a policy made to benefit the PR of Binghamton University, rather than the student body. 

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