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Chancellor on mission to corral cases

OBSERVER Photo State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras, center, addresses the COVID-19 with College Council President Frank Pagano as President Dr. Stephen Kolison listens.

Entering the State University of New York at Fredonia from Central Avenue in the village during the recent holiday weekend brought a sense of serenity. It was a low-key day and few students could be seen out and about.

But those who were appeared to be doing all the right things. Gatherings during the afternoon were limited to three or four individuals. Many were practicing safe distancing and facial coverings were quite prominent.

Inside the academic buildings, class numbers have been reduced. One of the locked rooms inside Fenton Hall was filled with unused desks that, for now, are in storage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those scenes sent a significant message during a troubled time. On campus, there is a sense of order and safety. It is what has been taking place on the outside of that environment that is the problem.

Rapidly rising numbers with regard to virus cases last week at the university prompted the visit by SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras on Sunday afternoon. He came to offer his reassurance and support to new President Dr. Stephen Kolison Jr., members of the administrative cabinet and the College Council.

On Sept. 1, 13 students were suspended due to what the university termed as violating the Student Code of Conduct relating to COVID-19 and off-campus events.

“Gatherings and parties … we have found to be the one of the biggest sources of outbreaks of COVID-19,” Malatras said during a meeting with area media. “I applaud the president for immediate and swift actions.”

No one was sure what to expect once students began returning for the fall semester on Aug. 15. For much of that first week – outside of the policies tied to the virus – it seemed like business as usual.

But the weekend of Aug. 29 and 30 changed everything. Reports of large get-togethers, even a possible party that centered around the virus, led to a vicious uptick from two cases on Aug. 30 to 64 one week later with a majority of those being off campus.

It put SUNY Fredonia in a notorious spotlight, which could have potentially mirrored what happened at the State University of New York at Oneonta. There, five students who were alleged to have served as hosts of large off-campus parties were suspended Aug. 29.

Within days, the virus spread like wildfire. As of Wednesday — 10 days since the suspensions were announced — there were 684 positive cases reported by the institution located in the northern Appalachian region. Besides the campus going online, the infections have put that community at risk.

That incident began a mission by Malatras. He quickly addressed the crisis at Oneonta before taking an active role in preventing other clusters from beginning.

“We are in a different time now and Oneonta is the example,” he said. “One party can blow up into the cases that they have now. That’s the margin of error we have now and this is life and death.”

Since Sunday, SUNY has been touting its systemwide COVID-19 case tracker dashboard that provides up-to-date information on infections, testing, and quarantine and isolation space availability across SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities to more efficiently monitor, respond to, and contain the virus. To Fredonia’s credit, it launched a similar initiative on Aug. 21 that benefits those connected to the campus as well as the residents who live here.

According to its most recent readings, there have been 15 new cases — 79 total with 72 active — over the past five days. That signals some hope and stability.

“We are the community and we often lose sight of that in this current environment,” Malatras said. “But our colleges and universities have been in communities all across upstate for decades, some more than 100 years and before we had a State University system.”

Sandwiched between the new chancellor’s stop in Fredonia were visits to the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College and later SUNY Geneseo. Through this week, he has been to 11 SUNY locations.

“We’re all in this together,” he said, applauding the university’s efforts in handling the crisis. “I think that’s a testament to what President Kolison and the entire team here have been doing.

“He came in to a really difficult situation, but this is what leadership looks like.”

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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