A message about returning to normal from President Harvey Stenger

May 18, 2020

Dear University Community,

As I write this letter, I am looking out my window at an empty campus, which will largely remain empty for the remainder of the summer sessions. However, we are anticipating and planning a reopening for the fall semester.

We spent the last part of March and the beginning of April managing the transition to remote learning and work, and doing our best to minimize the impact that had on our students, faculty and staff. At the same time, we were making a pro-rata return of room, board and fees to all of our students. Both were all-consuming tasks that demanded our full attention to make sure they were as successful as possible. Our top priority was helping our students succeed academically and ensuring they had the financial resources they needed during this very challenging time.

In mid-April, Provost Donald Nieman and I formed a relatively small working group of public health experts as well as campus professionals from critical areas of campus, including student life, research and education. We call this 11-member group the Return to Normal team (RTN). The RTN team is comprised of individuals with more than two centuries of combined Binghamton University experience and expertise in medicine and public health. Their charge was not to tell us how to return to normal, or what I now refer to as Reopening the Campus (RTC). Rather, they were to benchmark our reopening efforts against peer universities across the country. As an added resource to the RTN team, I opened a portal for campus members to submit their suggestions on how to reopen. I was pleased and excited by the response, receiving more than 200 thoughtful ideas in less than two weeks, an indication of how committed our students, faculty and staff are to our campus. I have read all of these suggestions, thanked each submitter and passed these ideas on to the RTN team. 

The RTN team was also charged with evaluating scenarios with focus groups across the campus. For example, a scenario to divide the fall semester into two half semesters was tested with faculty and staff in a variety of areas and disciplines. The team quickly found significant problems with this approach. Because the benefits were marginal, the idea was not pursued further. The team is doing this with dozens of scenarios, addressing topics such as residence hall occupancy, our academic calendar, modes of instruction, classroom occupancy, restarting research activity, transportation, staff returning to campus, virus testing, etc.

In parallel with the RTN efforts, I have met regularly with the more than 100 university presidents who are members of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), the nine presidents of the America East Conference and the 64 presidents of SUNY. Similar meetings are being held with vice presidents of research, vice presidents of student affairs, provosts, business officers and chief financial officers. I have also had productive conversations with the SUNY Chancellor's COVID-19 Task Force, U.S. Congressmen Hakeem Jeffries and Anthony Brindisi, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s higher education staff, NY Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, NY Sen. Fred Akshar, Broome County Executive Jason Garner, Binghamton Mayor Rich David and the village trustees of Johnson City. One of the benefits of all of these meetings is learning; we all have similar problems with common potential solutions. I have also come to the realization that, in many ways, Binghamton University is near the head of the pack on assessing and planning for what it will take to reopen safely. I credit that to the excellent work of the RTN team.

During these last two months, we were also watching and waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to define some of the parameters of how we could reopen. If you are watching his daily updates, you probably saw the one held Monday, May 11, at our School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences building. There, he showed more details about which regions could reopen and what process organizations would have to follow to reopen. It was gratifying to see in his presentation that the eight-county Southern Tier region had met all of the criteria for reopening. We are one of the first five regions out of 10 in the state that can now pursue gradual reopening in four phases. This was the signal that we needed to narrow scenarios, prepare implementation plans and choose among scenarios based on three important criteria: (1) protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and surrounding community; (2) maximize the success of our students in their education and our faculty in their research and creative activities; and (3) fully meet the expectations of New York state and Broome County. 

To do this, we knew that we needed more than the RTN team; in fact, we probably need every employee, student and community member to make our reopening a success. And while directly engaging our 4,000+ employees and 18,000 students is impossible, we have built 15 working groups comprised of nearly 100 people.

These working groups have been charged with creating plans for the hundreds of tasks needed to reopen safely and efficiently. In most cases the topics of the working groups identify their charge and scope of work. These groups have begun to meet frequently and will meet as one single large group each week, where we can learn of strategies, best practices, an overlap of responsibilities and advancement of the plans. The progress of these working groups will be tracked and reported on by our Office of Emergency Management, ensuring that we have the resources needed to meet the schedule of all tasks.

The good news is that I am confident we will have a fully workable and detailed plan in mid- to late-June that we will present to SUNY and New York state for approval. The bad news is that we have a lot of work to do to get to the first day of fall classes. This work includes actions that are still being defined, and incorporating the anticipated changing guidance from New York state and local and national health departments. As we identify tasks, we will begin implementing them as soon as possible and not wait for the full announcement in mid-June. There just isn’t time to take that approach. In the spirit of this go-when-ready concept, we have implemented a process with associated protocols to return faculty, staff and students to campus spaces where they conduct their scholarship, research and creative activities. The reopening of these spaces to the approximately 500 people who will use them will occur over the last two weeks of May, ensuring safety and compliance with New York state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. We anticipate that we will learn a great deal from this initial step toward reopening and that it will inform the rest of the campus reopening measures. 

Many people have asked me, “How can I help?” Let me offer a few suggestions:

For faculty: I ask that, after you’ve finished your spring grading, take a well-deserved rest. I know how hard and tiring it is to teach a full load, and I can only imagine how extra hard it was to move completely online with so little time to prepare. Then, after some well-deserved rest and recharging, you could possibly restart that paper you had set aside, dust off that project you were starting, or read the articles and books that have piled up in your inbox. However you have spent past summers, I anticipate you will do the same this summer. But you may also want to add a new routine to your summer schedule and find time to check in with James Pitarresi in the Center for Learning and Teaching at jmp@binghamton.edu. Check with him to see what he can do to help you prepare for the fall semester. One of the most likely scenarios this fall will require teaching both remotely and in person, and James and his staff are there to help. They will be reaching out to you to help you plan to deliver the high-quality, intellectually stimulating courses Binghamton is known for.

For staff: The reality is that it is best if we continue to reduce our physical density on campus for a while. For those employees who have the ability to successfully complete their work remotely, there will be a variety of options available. You will need to engage in conversations with your supervisor to determine what works best for both you and your department. Some employees may find that a combination of working remotely and coming into the office works best. However, many of our employees’ jobs require that they physically be on campus to perform them. In those instances, we are developing plans to keep our employees and the University community as safe as possible. We should all expect that the work environment will be different for the foreseeable future. We will be social distancing, wearing masks, cleaning frequently and minimizing person-to-person contact. We will not be able to congregate socially in breakrooms or hallways. I also understand that there a number of employees who have health concerns and we will work with you on a case-by-case basis to address those concerns.

For students: Take a break! You deserve it! Go for a walk, read a novel, play a game with your sibling and sleep in until noon a few days a week. But at the same time, start getting excited about returning — not too excited though, as social distancing will have new expectations for how you will live and learn this fall.

This letter was way too long, but there is so much to say and do, and I want everyone to be informed and prepared — and ready to take on the challenges we face. While I won’t be making as many videos this summer, I will continue to communicate with you often.

Thank you for your great work and commitment to Binghamton University during this challenging time.

Sincerely,
Harvey

For more information and updates, continue to visit the University's COVID-19 website.