2,000 Students Will Live in New Paltz Dorms Despite Pandemic

paltz dorms

Awosting Hall on the SUNY New Paltz campus will serve as a quarantine center for students in the Fall 2020 semester.

About 2,000 students are preparing to live in SUNY New Paltz’s dorms this fall semester as the coronavirus pandemic continues to burn through the U.S.

The university has made significant changes to deal with the coronavirus. Most courses will be online-only, the school is stocked with COVID-19 diagnostic tests, and the semester has been reimagined so students will leave campus in late November to avoid a feared late-fall surge. But New Paltz will remain a residential campus.

All 64 SUNY campuses submitted reopening plans to SUNY’s central administration over the summer, laying out how they will screen students for the virus, maintain social distancing on campus, deal with potential outbreaks and provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Triple-resident rooms were eliminated in SUNY New Paltz’s reopening plan, though some students will be housed in doubles. One of the school’s 14 dorms will be kept empty so any infected students can quarantine there.

About 3,200 people reside in the university’s dorms in normal times, according to SUNY New Paltz. The reopening plan only decreases this number by 300.

However, it appears more students have opted to live elsewhere. About 2,000 students plan to live on campus, according to SUNY New Paltz – 900 less than the maximum permitted under the plan.

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Signage on the front entrance to a New Paltz dorm, where students are set to begin living in mid-August.

SUNY New Paltz made this possible by offering the majority of its courses remotely. Seventy-two percent of individual classes are fully online, while another 12 percent will be “hybrid” courses – partially online and partially in person.

Students are required to don masks when leaving their dorm rooms and must wear them on campus unless they are outdoors and can socially distance, according to the plan.

Increasing evidence points to the dangers of being in confined spaces during the pandemic. It has been known since January a sickened person can spread the virus by sneezing or coughing, which shoots tiny COVID-containing droplets up to six feet before they drop to the ground.

The scientific consensus has moved in recent weeks towards believing COVID-19 is truly airborne – that a sickened person can emit microscopic COVID-containing particles when they yell, talk, or even breathe, and these particles can hang in the air for an extended period of time.

More than 240 scientists from 32 countries signed an open letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) in early July outlining the evidence showing COVID-19 can be airborne, saying the microscopic particles can drift “tens of meters” indoors before reaching the ground. Less than a week later, the WHO released a scientific brief on COVID-19 listing airborne transmission as an infection route for the first time.

In SUNY New Paltz’s plan, students must begin reporting daily any symptoms or exposure to COVID-19 on an online form two weeks before arriving on campus and must quarantine for a week before arriving.  There are no plans to test students when they arrive on campus.

Students arriving without their own facemasks or thermometers will be provided both by the campus. All students are required to continue the on-line health screening each day, reporting their temperature and any symptoms or potential exposures.

Students living on campus who show symptoms or have been exposed to the virus will be given a diagnostic test, the results of which are ready in 15 minutes, according to SUNY New Paltz.

A student who tests positive – as well as their roommate – will be quarantined in Awosting Hall, which can house up to 211 sickened students, according to the plan.

If a student gets a negative result, the school may test them using a different diagnostic test which takes 1-2 days to come back with a result.

Travel by students is discouraged, but not banned, though those visiting states on New York’s Travel Advisory List will be required to quarantine for 14 days, either at Awosting Hall, elsewhere in New York, or in a state not on the travel advisory list. The same rules apply to students traveling internationally.

Since the SUNY New Paltz submitted their plans June 23, things have improved in New York. The number of newly reported cases stayed the same – between 500 and 800 a day – but the daily count of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has steadily decreased, from 1,103 on June 23 to 556 on August 1, according to The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project.

However, the national picture has fallen apart. New daily deaths have more than doubled since June 23, according to the COVID Tracking Project, led by outbreaks in the Deep South, Arizona and California.

All SUNY campuses have prepared contingency plans – called “Pause and Pivot” – in case a second wave hits New York, or if there is a large outbreak on their campus.

Under SUNY New Paltz’s plan, campus will be evacuated within 72 hours except for students without access to technology, international students unable to return home, and those already in quarantine on campus. Classes would pause for seven days, then resume remotely.

It is rare for college-aged people to die of COVID-19. Of the nearly 140,000 fatal coronavirus cases analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) by July 29, less than 0.2 percent of the victims were below the age of 25.

However, this is much different than saying college kids cannot be infected.

Demographic statistics for non-fatal COVID-19 cases on a national level are difficult to collect because of HIPAA laws, the country’s patchwork of testing sites, and the sheer number of new cases each day. However, certain states release demographic data for confirmed infections, and they show growing cases among young people.

Minnesotans in their twenties accounted for a whopping 32 percent of new cases in the state from early June to early July, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. By mid-July in Maryland, twice as many twenty-somethings tested positive as septuagenarians, according to an analysis by The Baltimore Sun.

Even in normal years, a slight majority of New Paltz students live off-campus, either commuting from their hometowns or living in the village. Unlike more remote Hudson Valley universities, such as Bard College or SUNY Purchase, the campus is in the middle of a populated area.

International students arrived on campus Aug. 1 and will be quarantining in Awosting Hall for two weeks. First-year students begin arriving Aug. 16, with classes beginning Aug. 24.

CORRECTION – A previous version of this article included a caption that misstated the dorm where students would be quarantining. It is Awosting Hall, not Ashokan Hall.

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