ALBANY — The trip home from college for Thanksgiving is proving to be like no other.

Thousands of State University of New York students received their last SUNY-mandated coronavirus test Friday as they prepared to return home until the spring semester.

The state’s 64-campus higher education system has mandated that all 140,000 students taking in-person classes — or those who frequent gyms, libraries or dining halls — test negative for the novel coronavirus before leaving for Thanksgiving break. Most students will not return to in-person instruction until the scheduled start of SUNY’s spring semester Feb. 1, preventing travel to and from campuses between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

All students, faculty and staff were mandated to be tested once every two weeks, or one virus incubation period, throughout the fall semester.

SUNY administered 513,016 virus tests on campus through the fall semester with 2,526 total positives, or a 0.49% infection rate systemwide, according to SUNY’s online COVID-19 tracker at suny.edu/covid19-tracker.

“I think our students have done extraordinarily well,” SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said. “Our students have been regularly tested throughout the semester ... so it has become normalized, which has helped.

“I think we’re one of the few systems that have mandated testing out for Thanksgiving break,” added Malatras, who serves as a lead official on the state’s Coronavirus Task Force.

SUNY strengthened its testing requirements earlier this year after SUNY Oneonta shifted to a fully remote learning model for the semester Sept. 3 after more than 700 students tested positive, while five students were suspended in connection with large parties.

SUNY conducted hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 tests this semester with saliva — instead of nasal swab — tests, which were evaluated for positives in a pooled method of multiple samples after innovative work from Upstate Medical University, Syracuse. The methods were approved by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration.

“We’re requiring everyone to be tested on the way back as well,” Malatras said.

Saliva and pooled testing may be expanded in the state beyond the SUNY system after the holiday season, Malatras said.

Students found in violation of SUNY’s COVID-19 policies, including mandated testing, remaining six feet from others or holding mass gatherings could face disciplinary penalties, including expulsion.

“(Students) saw and experienced what happens when you close the campuses,” Malatras said of SUNY’s initial March shutdown when the virus first ravaged the state and nation. “They wanted to be back on campus experiencing college life as much as they could.”

SUNY Potsdam conducted 2,642 diagnostic tests as part of the required Thanksgiving exit testing Nov. 10, 11 and 13, culminating with the university’s final large Testing Tuesday — the campus nickname for designated surveillance COVID-19 testing days — last week. The campus tested 382 employees Nov. 17, and 329 the week before.

All tests were negative Nov. 13 and 17, but three people tested positive within the last two weeks, Potsdam Director of Public Relations Alexandra Jacobs Wilke said.

A student who tests positive and lives on campus is sent to isolate in designated residence halls. Off-campus students who contract the virus likely quarantine in their apartment or home following requirements set by the St. Lawrence County Public Health Department. The county works with the campus to determine if or when a student is allowed to go home to recover.

Throughout the semester, students and employees were divided into two groups, with each getting tested for the virus every other week in the athletic center. Employees are tested upstairs in the gymnasium.

“At this point, it’s sort of a well-oiled machine,” Jacobs Wilke said. “Students have been doing this for a couple of months now so they’re well-practiced at the routine.”

The county declared a state of emergency Nov. 9 in response to rapidly rising numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in the area.

Each student submitted a secure questionnaire to campus officials detailing their upcoming travel plans to ensure adequate time between their coronavirus test and expected departure date.

Potsdam tested 14,028 students, faculty and staff as of Nov. 20, with seven total positives through the semester, or 0.05%, according to SUNY’s online COVID-19 tracker.

Students swipe the saliva-collection swab on the inside of their cheek and under their tongue before returning it to the tube, giving it a shake and submitting the sample to a volunteer.

“They take their test, which is very quick and painless ... keep their distance, sanitize their hands and show ID cards when we check their labels,” Jacobs Wilke explained. “Students are really well-practiced at this point.”

About 85 students plan to remain on campus through the end of the fall semester. Those students are not permitted to leave the north country.

“We will not know until after Thanksgiving break how many students are planning to remain on campus between semesters,” Jacobs Wilke said. “However, any student who remains on campus will continue to be tested every other week at the minimum.”

Testing is available to all Potsdam students who live within a 15-mile radius of the Pierrepont Avenue campus.

“We are just so proud of our students — they have been so responsible throughout the whole semester,” Jacobs Wilke said, noting the campus’s low positivity rate. “It’s quite an achievement. We’ve seen day in and day out how hard they’ve worked, and it’s not easy to make sure you’re following all the expectations. They’re being ethical and responsible ... and we just feel lucky.”

SUNY officials will continue to evaluate COVID-19 conditions and numbers statewide before the start of the spring semester. The Feb. 1 date is subject to change.

“We re-evaluate every day — we look at this so closely every day,” Malatras said of statewide coronavirus infections and statistics, but added SUNY’s overall positivity rate remains low. “I think we’ll have to monitor what’s happening nationally. We have a lot of students who live outside New York state and have to comply with travel orders. New York has done such a good job (compared to) the uptick nationally ... We’re confident and hopeful that date will be the date we’re going to go by.”

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