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Op-Ed: Can’t stop CUNY

New York City College of Technology (City Tech) student and CUNY Student Trustee, Juvanie Piquant (left), and Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College student Hannah Kavanagh, both class of 2022. They are wearing sweatshirts with a CUNY logo for Welcome Home CUNY at City Tech. (Photo courtesy of CUNY)

For the first time in 17 months, CUNY’s campuses will be fully open for the start of the fall semester.

After nearly a year and a half of almost exclusively remote instruction, I am pleased to be able to welcome back our students, faculty and staff to CUNY for a new academic year that will offer a more familiar look, both in the classroom and on campus.

It has been a challenging period, to say the least, but like the city and state we call home, our university community is adept at dealing with adversity. This is reflected in our theme for the new academic year: Can’t Stop CUNY.

Approximately 45 percent of the nearly 50,000 course sections across CUNY’s 25 colleges and campuses this fall will be taught in a hybrid or in-person format, while some 55 percent will be delivered online.

So much of the CUNY experience revolves around the sense of belonging and togetherness we draw from our lives on campus, and it’s clear from my visits to several colleges on Aug. 25, the first day of fall classes, that people are happy to be back and reconnecting with their classmates and colleagues after a long time away. For many of our 260,000 undergraduate and graduate students, this fall will mark the first opportunity to participate in campus life.

At the same time, what is also clear is that they still have real concerns about the recent uptick in COVID-19 transmissions due to the emergence of the Delta variant. These developments have reignited some of their anxieties and fears.

I share our students’ excitement and fully understand their trepidation. It’s for this reason that I continue to preach the importance of getting vaccinated and masking up, since we all know these are the best tools we have for controlling the spread of COVID-19. And now, it is more than a suggestion; it’s mandatory. The full approval by the FDA for the Pfizer vaccine, issued on Aug. 23, triggered a 45-day final deadline for our students to be fully vaccinated, or they risk being unable to complete their courses.

For more than a year, the University has been preparing to welcome students back to a more in-person fall with a myriad of safety initiatives. These protective efforts included requiring that anyone entering a CUNY facility for any reason will need to be fully vaccinated, or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the previous seven days. We now have 18 testing sites up and running on campuses in all five boroughs, as well as two CUNY Central locations.

We have conducted a rigorous inspection of ventilation systems and other essential safety features in the classrooms, offices, laboratories, libraries and other spaces that will be in use. The University has also reviewed and approved comprehensive reopening plans for each CUNY campus and Central Office location, crafted in accordance with city, state and federal guidance.

I hope these precautions have a reassuring effect on our students, many of whom reside in the communities that were impacted the most by the health and economic crisis. Their stories of resilience, as well as their eagerness and concerns surrounding the fall semester, resonate with me greatly.

Billing Chen, who won the highly competitive Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship as a senior at Queensborough Community College and used it to transfer to Hunter, is excited by the opportunity to attend classes for the first time on the Upper East Side campus.
“I can’t wait to go back to school in person, to participate with my classmates and the professors,” said Chen, who plans to go to dental school after graduation next spring.

“Online, if you don’t understand something it’s kind of hard to type your questions,” she said. “I also like to have study groups, two or three of us who can do homework or study together, and I love to visit professors in office hours.”

Olawale Oladapo, an engineering student at Hostos Community College, voiced sentiments common among many CUNY students when he described being excited to be back on campus but also unsure of what to expect.

“The first day of school is never comfortable and now adding COVID to it,” said Oladapo, “I think it will be a new normal.”

The importance of establishing personal connections cannot be overstated. I wish all of our students the best of luck as they forge ahead in their studies, their lives and in CUNY’s return to our campuses. It may indeed be a “new normal,” as Olawale describes it, but our university community is well prepared to continue overcoming challenges together, for each other and for our city.

As I said: Can’t stop CUNY.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.

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