Last semester, UB managed to make it to Thanksgiving break without having to go on a two-week instructional pause.
This semester, the university might not be so lucky.
SUNY schools are required to transition to remote learning when 100 members of the on-campus community test positive for COVID-19 within a 14-day period. UB has registered 62 positive cases of the virus between Feb. 12 and Feb. 26.
Another influx of positive cases — the university receives test results for its on-campus surveillance program on a rolling basis — could push UB over the top and force a two-week pause.
“The University at Buffalo is very closely monitoring the prevalence of COVID-19 among its on-campus population, including weekly surveillance testing of all students, faculty and staff who are regularly on-campus,” according to UB spokesperson John DellaContrada.
The university’s low positivity rate — 0.38% over a rolling 14-day period, according to the SUNY case tracker — is evidence that “the university is a relatively safe place to be and can continue to safely offer in-person instruction,” DellaContrada said.
SUNY schools are reporting a 0.45% 14-day rolling positivity average, well below the 3.9% statewide average. But case totals are rising significantly on campuses across the country, which has some experts concerned the virus can make its way back into New York State’s higher education system.
In a statement, DellaContrada commended students for “following the rules while on campus.” He said the Division of Student Life and the University Police hadn’t received many reports of large gatherings on or off campus. Instead, he attributed the uptick in positive cases to the new SUNY testing policy.
“The current increase in cases is likely a result of UB’s efforts to test all students, faculty and staff each week who regularly come to campus,” DellaContrada wrote. “It is an indication that UB’s surveillance testing program is working by identifying all asymptomatic cases before they spread to larger portions of the campus community.”
‘Students will not be restricted from moving around campus’
In some ways, campus would look the same as it always does if UB has to enter into a two-week pause.
But in others, it would look quite different.
Popular campus eateries, like C3, Capen Café and the Union Marketplace and Eatery, would remain open, but would be converted to takeout/delivery only.
UB’s three major libraries — Lockwood, Abbott and Silverman — would remain open, but would be monitored to ensure that building capacity rules are being followed.
Essential services, like medical care and counseling, would continue. So too would clinical or laboratory activities “required to obtain or maintain professional licensure” and research that has to be done in person.
The Stampede and shuttle buses would remain operational, but on a reduced, winter session-esque schedule. The Stampede would service each stop approximately every 12 minutes. The North Campus Shuttle would make stops every 20 minutes. And the Red Line Stampede — which runs from Ellicott Complex to the Student Union — would continue unimpeded.
The two-week pause would profoundly impact in-person athletics, extracurricular programs and non-essential services, all of which must be suspended.
1Capen would operate remotely.
Students “will not be restricted from moving around campus,” but they would be encouraged to “remain in the dorms” if they live on campus. Residential facilities “must” remain open. Students would be encouraged to follow the university’s health and safety guidelines.
“Students who test positive are assigned to an on-campus quarantine space, where staff members provide around-the-clock care,” DellaContrada wrote. “Among students exhibiting symptoms, cases thus far have been predominantly mild.”
UB would be allowed to reopen campus after officials from the Erie County Department of Health determine that it is safe to do so at the end of the two-week period.
‘We are not concerned about the high volume of testing’
UB administered 5,496 surveillance and screening tests from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5, the most recently available one-week period. Five of those tests came back positive.
But in the two weeks since, case numbers have continued to rise at UB. During the previous two-week period counting toward the NYS threshold for shutdown, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 12, UB registered 84 cases of COVID-19.
But DellaContrada says UB was well-prepared for the uptick.
“The university is not concerned about [the] high volume of testing we are conducting each week,” DellaContrada said. “SUNY Upstate has assured the university it can handle the testing volume.”
DellaContrada says he doesn’t anticipate a backlog in tests, although in some places that use pooled surveillance testing, an influx in positive cases has slowed down the process. The more pools that register positive cases, the more students whose saliva samples need to be tested individually.
On Jan. 31, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras announced that SUNY Upstate will construct a COVID-19 testing laboratory at UB, which is expected to be completed by March. That facility will allow schools like UB to have a quicker turnaround time in processing the results, Malatras said.
Tests currently take about three days to be processed.
“The health and safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors to the university is our highest priority,” DellaContrada said. “UB will continue to post daily updates on its COVID-19 Dashboard regarding the prevalence of on-campus cases and the results of the university’s weekly surveillance testing program.”
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin Weiss is the The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.