On June 15, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger sent a B-Line Addition to students providing them with a link to a page on the University website that detailed a draft plan to “restart” BU for the fall semester.
The page opens by stating that any class taught at BU that is has more than 45 students enrolled is to be taught online, and all classes are entitled to spaces for in-person examinations, should the professor choose to use them. Any professor that has specifically requested to use online teaching methods, regardless of class size, may also do so. It is unclear just how many professors requested this option. The page states that priority for usage of in-person space will be given to classes that need performance spaces or special equipment, for seniors working on a capstone and if “the course will enhance the learning experience for our first-year students and help introduce them to the intellectual give and take of college-level work.” There was no explicit information stating whether or not those taking labs or other classes with a hands-on discussion component would be included in the 45 student rule. So far, it appears that it doesn’t for everyone. Many students are only now finding out that the in-person class they signed up for, that they paid for and thought would still take place in the spaces they needed, will be taught through distance learning.
However, a positive aspect of the plan is that “instructors will make alternate arrangements for students who are living remotely and taking their class online.” For students who are immunocompromised, have a preexisting condition or who live with a disability that puts them at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications as a result, this measure provides a much-needed way to receive their education while staying safe. It is reassuring to know that if a professor isn’t complying with a student, there will be a higher level of accountability that students can turn to and that there will be a viable online version of each class.
The University has also prohibited any events that would allow for an in-person audience, and groups may only meet if there is a space that will allow for 36 square feet per member and if they are able to book a space approved by the University. With the vast majority of student groups now unable to host events and even meet in person, student groups may not even be able to spend their money. The Student Association (SA) needs to share any and all plans it has regarding the fall semester, as they have yet to make any concrete statements directly to students. There is also no set plan regarding the use of Off Campus College Transport (OCCT), no decision about whether there will be any restrictions on the use of buses or if buses will be added to the schedule to give all students access to campus, to promote social distancing.
Greek life is also an extensive part of BU and there was no mention of any of these organizations on the webpage. These and other organizations that meet and socialize off campus are not provided with clear guidelines as to what violates University policy at this time and what sanctions groups will face should they meet off campus.
For those students who live off campus in the surrounding area, which constitutes about 58 percent of the student body, the line between campus and community rules is also blurred. Should the guidelines set by the University not be met by a student, it could result in “removal from campus housing pursuant to the housing license or denial of on-campus wireless access to the non-compliant off-campus student.” It is also worth noting that upon confirming enrollment and attending BU, all students agree to abide by the Code of Student Conduct, including the new policies set by the University. On campus housing will be limited to only singles and doubles per sleeping room, with one residence hall saved for isolation, should any students become infected. After facing room shortages in previous semesters, as well as the fact that an outbreak could spread very quickly on campus, it’s no surprise that many may feel like living at BU is a waste of time and money. Those who were planning to return to campus housing may choose to cancel their housing and commute to campus instead due to the lack of in-person classes available, regardless of how close they live to the University. This would make it extremely difficult for the University to regulate or even minimize the student traffic coming in and out of the Broome county area.
One of the most notable changes to the upcoming semester was the schedule for classes. The only break during the fall 2020 academic calendar will take place during Thanksgiving, after which all classes will be online. There will be no classes from Nov. 22 to 24, to reserve time for exams, and classes will end on Dec. 7. This will also mean that classes will remain in session during all religious holidays, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The University stated that it was required for professors to allow students to observe the holidays, though students are being discouraged from traveling outside of Broome County to do so. It’s a wise decision to get students out of classes as early as possible, as well as to limit in-person contact by having classes online after a peak travel time like Thanksgiving. However, there is no way to stop students should they decide to leave Broome county for any reason.
Essentially, with all the changes made to the schedule and student life disrupted, students are being asked to pay the same tuition price for a lesser quality of education. While it’s not the University’s fault that this is the new reality, it isn’t the students’ fault either and they shouldn’t be made to pay for an experience they aren’t receiving. They also deserve honesty. Limiting contact to reduce the spread of the virus is essential, but giving students hope of an in-person experience when that was never going to happen is wrong. Whether it’s through elimination of certain fees or a reduction of tuition costs, students need to receive some level of financial support during this difficult time, especially considering that many students may be out of work. Moving the deadline to cancel housing to a future date in July is a small step in the right direction.
The University has also said that there may be financial difficulties ahead, stating that “The New York state budget is expected to have a shortfall of up to 25 percent … This is estimated to be approximately $10 million for our campus.” Departments have even been asked to leave unfilled positions vacant, despite just coming back from a hiring freeze, and to cut costs where they can. The “Financial Planning” section of the webpage reads, “If we add all this up, with ranges of possibilities in enrollment and occupancy, we should be able to get to January, but we will have a very small margin for error.” Needless to say, that is a worrisome statement for all current and incoming students and they cannot be left in the dark throughout the upcoming months, especially when they’re still paying the full price to attend BU.
There is a section of the page dedicated to what will happen should an outbreak occur on campus. However, what is considered an “outbreak” of the virus is left undefined by both the University and SUNY system. The number of infected members of the BU community is important, as it dictates just how quickly the University could shut down as it did in the spring. Before an outbreak, there will be on-site testing available for students, as well as extensive cleaning of used spaces throughout the University. Should a student contract the virus, there must be easy and fair withdrawal procedures so they can focus on recovery without worrying about school.
The Editorial Board does commend the feedback form available for students to communicate with the administration, which currently sits at the bottom of the webpage. Listening and responding to the concerns of faculty and students is essential towards ensuring everyone is in the most satisfactory position possible.
The Editorial Board acknowledges that this is an unprecedented time in our history, and opening up a public university is no easy task. However, the webpage provided simply does not provide sufficient information for students hoping to attend school in the fall. While it is clear that the plan has yet to be approved by the state of New York, it is imperative that BU maintains complete transparency and honesty to prioritize the health of its students. Students deserve a reduction in fees paid to the University so they can make the best decision for their college education. Anything from a consistently updated webpage about BU’s plans to a manual containing all information regarding COVID-19 would be helpful and while this is a rough outline, it’s still a start. This draft must be revised and refined to reflect the state’s decision on it in order to keep students and faculty informed and safe when they return to BU.