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SUNY schools to close down in-person classes to minimize coronavirus exposure risk

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The vast state and city university systems in New York are switching to long-distance learning March 19, and most students will be going home due to worries about the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

The governor also said the state is contracting with 28 private labs to speed up what's been a slow process of testing potential virus victims.

Cuomo said SUNY and CUNY will be holding almost all classes online -- starting next week and continuing until the end of the semester -- and most students will be leaving the dorms. The governor said it's all about reducing the number of large groups of people gathering together.  

"CUNY and SUNY, starting March 19, will move to a distance-learning model," Cuomo said.  

He said if a student has nowhere else to stay, they will be allowed to remain, and those who have lab work that cannot be done on the internet also can stay. Cuomo administration officials said they are still working out all of the logistics, but it's also likely that there will be no public graduations this year.

SUNY's student association, in a statement, applauded the move, saying it's the right thing to do to protect students, faculty and staff.

United University Professions, the union representing  SUNY’s professors and other faculty, is also supportive of the decision and says its working to make the transition to  online classes. But the union says it will be “challenging”, and that some instructors who run labs or care for animals will have to stay on campus.

“We welcome the governor’s acknowledgement of the severity of the crisis SUNY faces,” UUP President Frederick  Kowal, said . “The safety of our students and members is paramount.”

Cuomo said the state is also contracting with over two dozen private labs around New York state to greatly increase the amount of testing that can be conducted. He said the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration have not moved quickly enough.

"New York state is going to take matters into its own hand," Cuomo said. "We're going to start contracting with private labs in this state to increase our testing capacity."

The governor and his aides could not immediately provide numbers of how many New Yorkers have been tested, and how many more will now be able to take the tests.

Some of the labs still need permission from the federal government for their testing protocols, which Cuomo said is "complicating" the situation.  

The governor has been talking to New York's business leaders to get them to voluntarily implement staggered work shifts and allowing employees to telecommute in an effort to reduce the density of people in the workplace.

The governor said he's also talking to organizers of St. Patrick's Day parades around the state, including ones in New York City and many major upstate cities, about possibly canceling the parades.

While Cuomo says he's not ready to ban large public gatherings, he is heeding the advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of President Trump's task force on coronavirus. Fauci recommends that people avoid being in large crowds.

"You don't want to shut down society, right? Because that's massively disruptive," Cuomo said. "But your main concern here is the public health crisis."

Cuomo said he's trying to strike a balance between the two.


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.