From Lockdown to Coming Back Safe & Strong
How the University Passed the COVID Test
It was early March 2020 and sun sprinkled the campus of Stony Brook University as Carolina Ruiz and her friends chatted about the upcoming spring break.
And then, everything changed.
“We were prepared to go to break and in the blink of an eye everything changed,” Ruiz, a 21-year-old junior biology major, said. “I felt like everything went into chaos and it hasn’t been the same since.”
Actually, the changes were already in motion with conversations about shutting down a portion of the annual Staller Center Gala, scheduled for March 7. Then Interim President, Michael Bernstein, who has since left the university, remembers those discussions as the real beginning of the pandemic – and as a time when he would have to act quickly and under growing pressure.
“We were all in sort of denial and thought that this isn’t really happening – and it’s not going to be as bad as everyone says,” Bernstein recalled.
At the time, there were only a few confirmed coronavirus cases in New York State and none in the vicinity of the university. But on March 8, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on Long Island – in Greenport, on the North Fork of Suffolk County. The 40 year-old patient was transported from Eastern Long Island Hospital to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
Suddenly, the global pandemic had arrived in Stony Brook’s back yard. The changes being discussed at the highest levels of the university administration were about to become real.
If anyone knew what that meant, it was Lawrence Zacarese – the interim chief of the University Police Department and assistant vice president for campus safety – the man who proclaims the words everyone at Stony Brook longs to hear as he announces the cancelation of classes on snowy days, “Out of an abundance of caution. … ”
Zacarese knew the university and hospital were prepared. As director of emergency management at the time, he was in charge of the preparations. On the hospital side, he helped manage occupant capacity and morgue overflow. On West Campus, Zacarese also prepared temporary hospital facilities and helped create the COVID-19 dashboard that would track the course of the disease at Stony Brook. But what he didn’t know – and couldn’t predict – was how long that state of preparedness would have to last.
“I was confident in our ability to get through the initial stages,” Zacarese said. “My concern became what happened after. I knew we would be able to handle the during, but I also had major concerns because of the hospital and our role in the region as a medical provider.”
Video by Isabelle Panza
The first public-facing decision to be announced was made jointly with the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) – to bring home about 260 SUNY students, including more than 30 Stony Brook students, who were studying in South Korea and Italy. About 26 students from SUNY study abroad programs immediately went into a mandatory 14-day quarantine at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus. That included 25 students from the Fashion Institute of Technology and one student from Stony Brook.
“We were quickly inserted into the COVID world, which I think paid dividends for us down the line, because we got really good at it really quick,” Zacarese said. “Having the space, having the comfort care items, having the medical care, having the mental health pieces, and all the things that we had to get in place for those students, with very little time to actually do it, was the blueprint that we had for the fall semester.”
Meanwhile, Judith B. Greiman, chief deputy to the university president and senior vice president for government and community relations, was one of several administrators preparing other changes.
“I was managing local people who thought we were bringing the virus to Long Island by bringing those students here,” Greiman said. She was also helping the Division of Student Affairs decide how to handle the new realities of residential life. “How do we have students who are in quarantine? What do we do with them? How do we serve them food? All of that was actually going on then.”
A week later, rumors began to spread across campus about imminent changes. During the week of March 9, emails started showing up in students’ inboxes from professors. Speculation was rampant. Classes were going online. Spring break was being extended. No one seemed to know what was going on. There were no official announcements from the university administration. Students were confused, frustrated.
Vanessa Luutran, a 21-year-old senior business major, remembered hearing from her friends about emails from professors, but never received one herself. “They were probably even more scared and freaked out than we were because we had to transition to online school, but they had to facilitate the entire thing,” she said.
For Luutran, who commutes approximately 12 miles from Holtsville, the week of March 9 was a fever dream. “That week was literally the most confusing, somehow unrealistic thing I’ve ever experienced,” she recalled. “We had absolutely no answers and we barely even had questions because we literally had no idea what was going on.”
Richard Gatteau, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Stony Brook was the first of the 64 campuses in the SUNY system to call for a shift to remote classes. But the decision wasn’t solely up to the university.
“Rightly so, we needed to consult with SUNY to make sure that it was working,” Gatteau said. “And ultimately, the governor and SUNY wanted it to be system wide because this evolved so rapidly. It made more sense for it to be a SUNY decision so that every campus could prepare, even though the time frame to prepare was literally 12 to 24 hours.”
Students received emails from the administration saying potential solutions were being evaluated. One statement referred to a possible move to remote instruction, saying the university was “taking steps to plan for such an action if it should be necessary.”
On March 11, still with no official announcement about the future of the spring semester, students protested the administration’s silence.
Gatteau remembered getting a call when he was in a planning meeting with senior leadership in the Student Activities Center (SAC) that day. More than 150 students were gathering in protest at the fountain on the Academic Mall. His heart was pounding as he walked the short distance between the SAC and the fountain, mentally preparing what he would say. When he arrived at the protest, students were clapping and chanting, “Send us home, pay us back.”
“The thing that was frustrating at the time is I knew the background of what we wanted to do,” Gatteau said.
But all he could say to students as he stood on the wall surrounding the still-closed fountain was that the university would be making an announcement soon. And he urged students to watch Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s televised press conference that day.
“I absolutely understood the frustration of students,” Gatteau said. “I think I would have felt the same way because there was such a tense time of a lot of uncertainty and what our students wanted and needed was more certainty with the answers.”
Cuomo’s announcement at the press conference confirmed the rumors that had been circulating for days. All SUNY schools would be moving to remote classes for the rest of the semester. Finally, it was official.
That week, thousands of students left campus for what was supposed to be an extended spring break – unsure of what to expect beyond that.
“I was concerned about the structure of changes and how everything was going to be organized,” Christine Om, a 21-year-old senior biology major, said. She lived on campus before the pandemic and has resided at her home on Long Island since.
Shaheer Khan, then-president of the Undergraduate Student Government, remembered finalizing campus events for the remainder of the term, including the Back to the Brook concert and the Laugh at the Brook comedy show. But Khan knew something serious was happening based on what he was hearing from the SUNY Student Assembly – a group of elected student representatives from all SUNY schools that functions as an umbrella student government and a liaison to the chancellor and the board of trustees.
“USG didn’t even have all the information, Stony Brook University didn’t have all the information – it was really up to the governor of New York to really call the shots,” Khan said. “When we were told that we were going to go to spring break and then have an extra week of spring break just to get things back to normal, that’s all we really thought – that it wasn’t going to be crazy.”
While on spring break, students got the announcement that the university closed on-campus housing for the rest of the semester in an effort to reduce population density. Campus residents were notified on March 17 that they had to vacate their rooms – in two days.
The billing cycle for residential housing typically closes at the end of the semester. But due to the pandemic, it ended on March 19. If students were unable to leave by that date, housing charges continued until their rooms were vacated and their keys were returned.
In the email announcing the closure of on-campus housing, students were also notified about pending refunds. “Room and meal plan costs will be prorated for the remainder of the semester for all students leaving campus housing and applied as a refund and/or credit to your student account based on the date of check out,” the email stated.
As students packed their clothing and twin-sized bedding, took down decorations and photos of friends and relatives and made sure their rooms were empty before closing their doors, they came to a stark realization – the rest of the semester would be completely virtual. Already, the physical look of the campus was changing as a drive-through testing site opened in the South P commuter parking lot and soon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would start building a 1,000-bed field hospital in the shadow of the football stadium.
Khan recalled being at home with his family in Elmont and feeling perplexed and confused. “I immediately thought about how we can get students accustomed to Stony Brook University virtually and what USG can do to provide for this,” he said. “It was really a collaborative effort to figure things out together.”
Michael Bernstein said that closing the dorms was one of the most challenging decisions he had to make. And for Laura Lindenfeld – dean of the School of Journalism, now the School of Communication and Journalism – it was difficult to watch.
“I think it was very hard in the beginning because none of us knew what we were doing and nobody had faced this before,” said Lindenfeld, who was part of the coronavirus academic planning group. “We were watching students being moved out of dorms and that was just a horrible process.”
To compensate for the rapid switch to remote classes, Stony Brook established a Pass/No Credit grading option, which allowed students to forgo letter grades in an unlimited number of courses that semester. But remote instruction was new for both students and professors, which caused anxiety all around.
“We achieved more in the way of preparing for and delivering remote instruction than we had talked about for the previous 10 years,” Bernstein said. “In the pressure of this emergency, everybody sort of came together and said, ‘Well, you know we have no choice now. We’re just going to have to make this work.’”
Zoom became the word of the semester. Students could no longer just knock on professors’ doors during office hours. They had to wait for Zoom invitations and enter virtual waiting rooms. Professors had to switch from writing on white boards in classrooms to creating slides for Zoom classes and learning how to share their computer screens – not to mention remembering to unmute themselves before talking.
“We maintained the academic program, but it was anything but business as usual,” said Charles Robbins, then vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate colleges, who is now a professor in the School of Social Work and executive director of the Center for Changing Systems of Power. “So, the attempt was to make it as close to that as possible, but try to be as understanding and as human as possible, in terms of what students were experiencing.”
Online classes worked well for many students, such as Christine Om. She recalled her classes being much easier when the switch occurred and being able to simply log on was a plus compared to walking from class to class. “It was difficult at the same time because the professors were kind of trying to adjust to it,” she said. “Even still, some of them don’t know how to work Zoom.”
On the other hand, some students, such as Alanya Radner, a freshman marine science major, struggled. Online classes made her feel disconnected from the course material. “I just sit in my room and I get distracted by all the things around me,” she said at the time. “And then I remember to look at my computer screen and there’s another slide with something being explained by a disembodied voice half the time. It’s just really not what you expected when you said you wanted to go to college.”
Greiman’s role as chief deputy to the president includes responding to faculty and student matters. After the switch to remote learning, Greiman said both faculty and students expressed concern about course material, laptop access and adequate internet connections.
“There was this notion of how do we make sure that everybody has the resources they need to operate in this kind of new reality,” Greiman explained.
A survey of undergraduate students was conducted a few weeks into the transition to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. Multiple surveys have been conducted during the pandemic to gauge student satisfaction.
“The transition for many students who went home, their living situation was not particularly conducive to studying and being able to do well,” Robbins said. “There was also a decent-sized group of students who did not have a laptop or an iPad or something to work on.”
After a month of online learning, SUNY distributed more than 8,800 laptops and Chromebooks to students to make online classes more accessible. Greiman took on the project at Stony Brook. Instead of waiting for the laptops to be shipped, a faculty member drove almost four hours to Albany to pick them up.
About 150 laptops were loaned to Stony Brook students who applied for them through the Division of Student Affairs. “I think that it’s critically important to make sure that no student is disenfranchised and doesn’t have the opportunity to continue,” Robbins said. “We couldn’t let the digital divide keep a significant number of our students from being able to continue their studies.”
The laptop loan program continued into the fall 2020 semester through the university library and the Division of Information and Technology, which rented HP laptops to about 200 students. Under the ongoing program, students can borrow a laptop for up to 60 days and renew it if there is no pending reservation. There are no additional fees for borrowing a laptop as long as the student has a Stony Brook student ID and abides by library standards.
As students faced great upheavals in their personal and academic lives, the mental health and emotional impacts on a generation of young adults was on everyone’s minds. Fears of the pandemic overlaid with the isolation of remote learning were a difficult combination. Many students faced emotional distress while still trying to maintain their grades.
Om got hit by a wave of depression as a result of the lockdown and adjusting to online classes. But it didn’t end there. Her spring semester classes seemed less demanding as professors made accommodations to their courses in light of the escalating pandemic and the sudden move to Zoom as everyone dealt with the shell shock of the situation. But when online courses resumed the following fall, the academic rigor of Om’s courses seemed to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It really hit me a little before the fall semester started,” Om said. “Because everything was more put together, it was harder for me to do well in school.”
During the extended spring break, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) went virtual with teleconferencing and other online services. And the Healthier U initiative, a wellness program for employees, was expanded.
“It was change, it was scary, it was health,” Greiman said. “We increased CAPS and Healthier U and all of these services to help make sure that our faculty and staff and students were – as best we could in the midst of a rapidly changing and difficult environment – able to get the support that they needed.”
But the changes took a toll on the university’s financial status. Before the pandemic even began, the university was facing budget stress due to inflationary costs and decreased state funding, according to President Maurie McInnis, who came to Stony Brook from the University of Texas at Austin in April as the pandemic was raging.
“I was particularly excited to join the Stony Brook community because I was really well aware of Stony Brook’s strengths,” she said, “particularly the work we do in cutting-edge research, in providing great health care, but especially the role we provide in giving educational opportunities to a diverse and really talented group of students.”
Her official start date as the university’s sixth president was intended to be July 1, but she began much earlier. Even before she officially stepped in last summer, McInnis was already involved in coronavirus guideline preparations.
“Immediately, even before I began the job in July, I knew we had work to do as a community and I jumped in – really starting in April right after my announcement,” McInnis recalled. “And that was going to require a broad campus response, not only in fighting COVID-19, but we needed to be really thoughtful about how we were going to support students in their education as we move to this all-of-a-sudden, overnight, remote teaching.”
For Stony Brook, the pandemic’s price tag was high – $220.7 million in lost revenue and coronavirus-related health care costs, including personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, educational materials and testing equipment. The price also included another $77.5 million in lost revenue and costs on the academic and research side.
Academic and research costs included $34 million in refunded student fees; $12 million in cultural programs and facility rentals; and $9.6 million in cleaning supplies, student quarantine provisions and technology expenses. As a result, the administration cut the 2019-2020 budget and put a hiring and purchasing freeze in place. These freezes will continue and are expected to save the university approximately $20 million and $2.3 million, respectively, in the 2020-2021 budget.
“Mostly what we’re facing is our faculty and staff are having to work harder and harder and harder,” McInnis said. “And that’s not sustainable because there is a tipping point where people just can’t work any harder.”
To start tackling the new financial reality, McInnis launched the Strategic Budget Initiative, which brought together 120 faculty and staff into five task forces and a technical support team to examine issues involving academics, operations, research and innovation, Stony Brook Medicine, and cultural, athletic and facilities resources.
McInnis is optimistic about the budget, but says she still worries. “This year, it was almost a tsunami of budget challenges that were facing this campus,” she said.
Lost revenue for the past academic year included lower out-of-state and international student enrollments, potentially fewer students living on campus and eating in the dining halls, an increase in COVID-testing services and a substantial outlay for cleaning equipment.
“The last federal relief bill provided some rather significant relief to the State of New York so their budget deficit is not as large as they were anticipating it might be, but there’s still a budget deficit,” McInnis said. “And so we do not know what to expect and we don’t know where it’s going to end up – so we’re nervous.”
McInnis said the university needs additional funding to address its longstanding budgetary issues. “I’m hopeful that we will one day be successful in helping our supporters understand what it is we do that is special and unique for this state and how vital we actually are for New York’s future, both in the education we provide and in the research and innovation that we drive,” she explained. “It is so clear that investing in higher education is, for the long term, one of the most important things you can do for the economic development of your state.”
Once the spring 2020 semester ended, administrators realized they had only fought half the battle. Now, they had to devise a plan for the fall – and quickly.
“The days just sort of blended together,” Zacarese recalled. “There were very long days working with the county, working with the town, working with the state and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA].”
Task forces and planning groups formed and in seemingly no time, the new academic year arrived. All the groups operated under an executive leadership team that originally included Maurie McInnnis, Rick Gatteau, Judith Greiman and Michael Bernstein, who at the time was the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
“I think the team constantly rose to the occasion of sharing information, arguing the issues and then making a decision,” Bernstein recalled. “We didn’t get paralyzed and when having to make a decision, we didn’t get into a lot of infighting or any refusal to cooperate.”
To set priorities for fall 2020, Bernstein asked faculty and staff to identify guiding principles and developed a summary report prepared by the Academic Planning Task Force that looked at academic and technology concerns as well as accessibility and diversity, equity and inclusion issues. One recommendation focused on communication.
The task force concluded that the administration should “communicate frequently, empathically, and uniformly, all while placing health and safety as the core priority.”
The Facilities Reopening Plan, issued on June 8, outlined three steps needed to reopen classrooms the following fall semester — follow guidance from authorities, protect the health and safety of the returning workforce and students, and create a transparent process.
Spatial planning would be required in classrooms to ensure social distancing, which led to the appearance of green and red stickers on floors and chairs across campus.
Classroom capacity dropped to 45 percent occupancy and lecture halls to between 18 and 22 percent.
Returning to campus for the fall 2020 semester meant students had to provide a negative coronavirus PCR test – the gold-standard, nose-swab test that detects the genetic material of the virus and is considered the most accurate way to diagnose COVID-19. They also had to quarantine for 14 days if they were from a restricted state or from abroad.
The university adopted a hybrid teaching approach for many classes – meaning a combination of in-person and virtual instruction – during the fall and winter 2020 semesters as well as the spring 2021 term.
The campus population decreased significantly with only 17 percent of students living on campus during the spring 2021 semester compared to 37 percent of students the previous spring.
About 83 percent of classes were online, while only 10 percent were held in person at West Campus locations and three percent at the Health Science Center.
From the start, testing played a major part in Stony Brook’s strategy. Testing to keep the virus at bay on campus. Testing to ensure safe return when the time was right. Testing. Testing. Testing. As Rick Gatteau says, “It’s all about the testing.”
On March 18, 2020, Suffolk County’s first COVID drive-through testing site opened in the South P lot – the largest commuter parking lot on the sprawling suburban campus. In addition to providing testing for county residents, the university also tested students living on campus through Enzo Clinical Labs, a full-service clinical reference laboratory with multiple locations on Long Island. Students could walk into a small tent attached to a mobile home turned testing site outside the Student Health Center, which was closed at the time except for telehealth counseling and by-appointment, in-person visits. After making appointments online, students formed long lines to get their noses swabbed.
Marisa Bisiani – assistant vice president of Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services – said Enzo Labs was chosen because of its expeditious turnaround time and its ease of use. “They had a program that was, I would say, most student-forward facing that really would make it the most simplistic, easiest way for students to obtain COVID testing,” she said.
Last September, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras and McInnis partnered with SUNY Upstate Medical University to provide pooled surveillance COVID-19 testing, which mixes several individual samples, then tests the combined sample. Pooled testing became a priority because it increased the number of students, faculty and staff that could be tested using the same amount of resources as regular testing. With this testing system, a negative test means that all 10 to 25 people in the group are presumed at the time to be free of the coronavirus. A positive test for the pool would mean each saliva sample would need to be tested again individually to pinpoint exact positive cases.
Pooled testing was conducted in SAC Ballroom A and continued into the spring 2021 semester. Another form of pooled testing was also introduced that semester. It was a pilot program with a quick-and-easy testing alternative that collects saliva in a straw, rather than with a long-handled nasal swab.
Stony Brook University has been praised for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor Malatras applauded the university’s requirement that students test negative for COVID-19 before the semester started and its regular testing of everyone on campus.
“I wanted to visit Stony Brook especially because I want to highlight shining examples of campuses that are doing it well,” Malatras said at a press conference outside the Stony Brook Union last September. “And that’s important to build confidence and to demonstrate that this can be done.”
Other state leaders also praised Stony Brook for its testing regimen.
“I commend Chancellor Malatras and Stony Brook President McInnis for bringing this vital testing system to Stony Brook University,” said New York State Assembly member Steve Englebright (D-Setuaket), a Stony Brook-trained geologist who is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “The health of students, staff, and community members must be given the highest priority. Pooled surveillance testing can help to speed up the process of identifying infections and preventing the spread.”
With the theme of protection, resident students, faculty and staff received two “Stony Brook Strong” cloth face masks at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. Vending machines across campus also got new additions – they were filled with masks and other personal protective equipment including hand sanitizer. These will be available into the fall 2021 semester.
During the spring 2021 semester, the university amped things up with mandatory twice-a-week PCR testing. If they didn’t comply, resident students faced penalties up to one-year suspensions from university housing – and even outright bans from campus.
The university also switched from the walk-up testing site at the Student Health Center to two indoor testing locations at the Center for Leadership and Service and the Center for Global Studies and Human Development. Testing went from outdoors to indoors in favor of accessibility and weather conditions.
“Students follow the COVID protocols,” Bisiani said at the time. “I see students wearing their facial coverings and I am so impressed by what they have done and what they continue to do with the COVID testing twice a week. Students have been amazing.”
The ramped-up testing system also kept the infection rate low, and isolation and quarantine rooms never got close to capacity.
The first COVID-19 case at the university was confirmed on March 22, 2020 – after students had already left for spring break.
From then to mid-September of this year, there have been at least 500 positive student cases and 400 positive cases among university employees, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard received a grade of “A” from the website “We Rate COVID Dashboards,” founded by researchers from Yale and Harvard Universities. The dashboard was described as “easy to read” and was highly rated for its frequent updates, data and trends.
Zacarese, now assistant chief of police and director of emergency management, is proud of the dashboard. “It tells our story and we knew we wanted a way to be transparent and fair,” he said. “We knew it was important to have that data readily available and updated … as often as we could.”
McInnis said hybrid instruction during the 2020-2021 academic year went as planned, with only about 25 percent of classes conducted in person, giving students opportunities for online and in-person experiences.
“We were able to have a lot of our in-person classes conducted very safely, giving our students opportunities still for in-person education, especially in those areas that were just so hard to do remotely,” McInnis said. Those areas included experimental settings in labs and classes heavily based on discussion, including smaller introductory classes.
“Our students have done such an amazing job of understanding how important it was to follow the guidelines, so that everybody could stay healthy and we could remain in person, living our lives to the best that we can,” McInnis added.
When resident students tested positive for COVID-19, they were notified by Student Health Services and required to move to one of the 394 isolation and quarantine rooms set up in three locations within West Apartments. Contact tracers tracked down people they may have been in contact with so those people could also go into quarantine. There are fewer designated isolation and quarantine rooms for the fall semester because residence halls will be returning to near full capacity.
CAPS counselors checked in daily with quarantined students, Bisiani said, as did someone from Student Health Services. Students used tele-counseling services and had access to recreation and wellness programs – “to take not-such-a-great experience and make it the best it could be,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 394 students have been quarantined.
Alanya Radner, a marine science major who is a member of the University Scholars program, was quarantined on campus four times – twice as precautions and twice because she’d been exposed to someone who had tested positive.
“It’s definitely very lonely,” she said. “Since I’ve quarantined four times now, I’ve gotten to see them become more and more organized and kind of figure out what works for students in a quarantine setting.”
The arrival of vaccines during the spring 2021 semester eased anxiety. Based on state eligibility rules, New Yorkers signed up to get the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at the university’s Research and Development Park. In just the first month that vaccines were available, about 120,000 shots were administered. Shortly after the state made vaccines available to everyone 16 years old and older, a site for students was set up in the newly renovated Stony Brook Union. By the beginning of April, more than 1,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine had been administered to students.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was available to students until rare side effects temporarily halted distribution on April 13. But ten days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the hold, and the university again made it available to students on May 5 – the first of several opportunities to get the one-shot vaccine.
“We went from a place where there was limited availability to now … people are actually shopping around and deciding which vaccine they want and which one they feel comfortable with,” Bisiani said.
Mcinnis recalled her own vaccination as an emotional moment. “That moment when you realize that we are on a pathway to be able to protect the health of our communities, including your own personal health, I found a very moving moment,” she said.
“The job of being a university president is many, many, many hours, seven days a week, no matter what,” McInnis said. “This came with, I think, a very different level of stress and concern, because it had this layer of knowing that the decisions you were making were very much tied to the health and well being of your larger community.”
But she wasn’t prepared for how long that task would take. She stressed the importance the administration and staff played. “What I didn’t know and what none of us could have anticipated, was the breadth and depth of the toll that COVID-19 would have on our community or the challenges that we would face,” McInnis said. “We had a great range of committees actually really focused on it and we work together great as a team.”
Bernstein said a silver lining to the pandemic was learning lessons about remote instruction in higher education, including digital techniques of instruction and new ways to communicate. “You never waste a good crisis,” Bernstein said. “When there’s a crisis, you use it as an opportunity not simply to survive, but to make things better.”
Produced by Melissa Azofeifa with contributions from James D’Elia, Matt Lindsay and Claudia Motley
The university celebrated the end of a traumatic academic year with in-person graduation – actually, a series of 10 separate ceremonies during the third week of May. The hope for a more normal fall semester was almost palpable. On Aug. 23 – the first day of the fall 2021 semester – more than 80 percent of classes were in person with nearly 10,000 students living on campus.
“I imagine by the fall, when we will have a significantly vaccinated population, that we’re all going to feel even more confident about being able to follow whatever the guidelines are at that point,” McInnis said at the time.
A significantly vaccinated population didn’t take long to accomplish. On June 15, Cuomo announced that coronavirus restrictions were lifted as 70 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 or older had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
But things constantly change during a pandemic, and the Delta variant arrived with force. During the summer months, the highly contagious mutation swept through New York, especially among the unvaccinated. Scandal spread as quickly as the virus and Andrew Cuomo resigned in his third term as governor amid allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct. And now, the presence of a new governor, Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor who was sworn in on Aug. 24 as New York’s 57th and first woman chief executive, puts the future of SUNY and Stony Brook in a new light.
The emergence of the Delta strain coupled with the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine colored the university’s plans for the fall 2021 semester. Students who were registered for at least one in-person class were required to submit proof of vaccination; by the start of school, at least 89 percent had complied. Now, according to Stony Brook’s COVID dashboard, 100 percent of the 9,500 students living on campus are full vaccinated as are 92 percent of the 14,000 commuter students taking in-person classes.
Faculty and staff on West Campus and those at the hospital, medical school and Health Sciences Center whose jobs don’t put them in contact with patients were required to do the same. The dashboard shows that to date, 74 percent of university employees and 78 percent of Stony Brook Medicine employees have been inoculated. Everyone who is fully vaccinated must undergo testing approximately once a month; the unvaccinated or those who refuse to share their status must submit to weekly testing. And even though social distancing isn’t required, everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must wear face masks in all classrooms and indoor public spaces.
Since more than 90 percent of students are registered for at least one in-person course, suddenly, the campus is more alive than it’s been in a year and a half. McInnis said one of her long-term goals is for the university to recapture its energy and ambition. The president who took over in the middle of a pandemic said she can’t wait to see throngs of students walking down the Academic Mall and to talk with them face to face.
“I also want us to be very mindful of ways that we can really celebrate once we’re able to be back together,” she said before the start of the semester. “That coming together of community and that affirmation of who we are as Seawolves supporting one another and how excited we are to move to a better chapter, as more and more of us are vaccinated, as we get on top of COVID-19 and we can really celebrate our future.”
For many months, the coronavirus created challenges that shook and transformed the university. Noses were swabbed about 303,000 times to test for COVID-19. Approximately 400 million minutes of Zoom sessions were logged. About 350,000 students, faculty and staff rolled up their sleeves and braved sore arms to be vaccinated – to protect themselves, their families and friends and fellow Seawolves.
But in the end, Stony Brook University stood up to the myriad challenges and came back safe and strong.