CSCU’s navigate the reopening process with cautious optimism


Jessica Guerrucci Editor-in-Chief

It’s been just over a month since students returned to their campuses, and President of the Connecticut State Colleges Mark Ojakian said he remains cautiously optimistic.

“I think because of all the planning we did in the spring and into the summer to the first part of September, we were ready to be back and ready to put all the protocols in place that will allow things to continue right through Thanksgiving,” said Ojakian.

Each CSCU university (Southern, Eastern, Western and Central) was required to submit a four-point plan detailing their reopening process, including how they would repopulate the campus, monitor the health of students, faculty and staff, contain cases that develop and a plan for in case of a campus wide shutdown.

All the plans are similar, but they each take into consideration the size of the campus and whether it is commuter or residential based. Ojakian said he was pleased with how Southern social justice into their plan. “We can forget at times about the issues that exist in our culture and our society,” Ojakian said, “but I think what Southern was able to do is weave in the transition to online with the continued advocacy for social justice, that I know President Joe [Bertolino] and others on campus consider a very high priority.”

Acknowledging that underrepresented communities and marginalized communities have been affected at a greater rate, Bertolino said it is something he paid close attention to when creating the plan, he recognizes that about 50 percent of students in the residence halls are people of color.

For the plans, similar approaches were taken at Southern and at Central which are more commuter based than Eastern and Western, according to Ojakian. The plans were all changed based on the demographics of the students at each university.

There have been COVID-19 cases on each of the campuses, but Ojakian said it was expected.

Each campus has been testing 25 percent of their residential population and all student-athletes weekly, up from five to 10 percent as of Sept. 13, and commuters and faculty have the option to self-report.

As of Oct. 1, Southern has had four positive cases, or a .29 percent positivity rate, and an additional 16 people self-reported. Ojakian said the university has done “extremely well,” considering it is in an urban area.

President Joe Bertolino said the results speak for themselves, with the university reporting no cases for the week of Sept. 28.

Central has 28 positive cases, a 2.25 percent positivity rate and an additional 55 self-reported cases, according to the COVID-19 dashboard of CCSU, an outlier in the system linked to a “small outdoor gathering” of 15 students off campus. Ojakian said the students were quarantined and isolated.

Ojakian worked with Mayor Erin Stewart of New Britain to see what caused the spike at Central.

Eastern had nine positive cases, or a .005 percent positivity rate and 20 self-reported cases, and Western, whose opening was delayed two weeks due to a spike in Danbury, has had one positive case, a .10 percent positivity rate and four self-reported cases.

While Bertolino said he can’t speak for the other institutions, he said Eastern’s location factors in. This is despite a recent spike in nearby Norwich which has a 6.7 percent.

I am pleased with the progress we’ve made so far, and we continue to have to monitor what’s happening and sort of pivot as things shift in a different part of the state,” Ojakian said.

As a result of COVID-19 across the system, enrollment is down 5.5 percent as are residential occupancy rates.

Bertolino said the biggest impact was on the first-year class which is down by about 25 percent. While not surprised, he said there will be long-term impacts.

Overall, the university’s enrollment is down by five percent.

Looking nationally, Ojakian said enrollment may have declined, but the positivity rates between the colleges are far below the national average.

As for financials, the sudden shift to online learning was costly to the CSCU institutions who had to refund $23.9 million to students due to the early closure of residence halls. The $13 million received in federal aid was not enough to cover the losses.

The state has already rewarded $5.5 million to the CSCUs from the COVID-19 Relief Fund, Southern received $703,510 with $332,512 going toward cleaning, supplies and PPE.

Bertolino said the university has spent about $500,000 on technology for Hyflex classes and trainings, but this will allow them to have even more online class formats in the future.

As for students who were skeptical of the reopening process, Bertolino said as each week passes, he becomes more confident and hopeful, but he doesn’t blame them for holding their breath.

“If we are actually able to get to Thanksgiving that will be a major accomplishment for the institution,” he said.

Sociology major Samantha Ottowell, a freshman, said the reopening has gone well compared to other state schools like Western who had to pause their reopening.

“I think for the most part everyone wants to be here and wants to be able to stay on campus and come back in the spring,” said Ottowell.

Exploratory major Grace Olivieri, a sophomore, said she originally returned to school thinking it would shut down in two weeks.

“I think all the kids are coming together to do a good job without partying and throwing huge things which I think is good,” she said.

While Olivieri said she knows a spike is possible, she feels the virus is somewhat under control. Students are on the same page and keeping each other safe.

When the campuses were reopening, Ojakian said people were mostly critical of college students, thinking that they would not be able to stop the spread of the virus.

“They sort of sold you all short and didn’t think that you had the ability to take a pandemic seriously,” Ojakian said. “I thought quite the opposite, that our students in our system could rise to the occasion and actually take this seriously and that’s what I’m seeing.”

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