It was a long journey to Syracuse for Cole Pickering. The College of Arts and Sciences first-year student left his home in the Seattle area weeks ago, flew to New York City, where he spent time in self-quarantine, and took the train to Syracuse. Last Monday, he was one of nearly 1,000 new students who arrived on campus as part of Syracuse Welcome. By week’s end, nearly 6,000 students had moved in. “I’m looking forward to getting settled,” says Pickering, who came with a suitcase and a backpack (Xbox included) and shipped the rest of his stuff. “I want to develop some social relationships and meet my roommates. I also want to explore the campus and see where my classes are.”
As Pickering stands outside Brewster-Boland-Brockway halls, another member of the Class of 2024 is loading her belongings into a move-in cart. Kayla Turner and her parents made the five-hour trip from Middleboro, Massachusetts, and she’s excited to begin her Syracuse University experience. Like Pickering, she looks forward to making friends and forming new relationships with faculty members and peers. “I went to a really small school, so this is a new experience completely,” says Turner, a neuroscience major. “I’m excited to explore Syracuse itself, too.”
She is also well prepared. “I have all my hand sanitizer,” she says. “A big container,” her mother adds with a smile.
Across Van Buren Street, Brewster Hall resident advisor (RA) Buddy Murphy ’23 sits at a tent-covered table in the Stadium Parking Lot, handing out room keys to arriving students. “It’s nice to see students’ faces in person and put names to them because I know as the year goes on, I’ll be seeing a lot of them through Zoom calls,” he says. In preparation for his RA duties, Murphy attended a number of virtual meetings and took in a good deal of information. “Now that move-in day is here, it’s all being put in motion,” he says.
Welcome to the 2020 edition of Syracuse Welcome—an arrival to the Syracuse University campus like no other before. Since residential learning closed down on campus last spring due to the pandemic, the University has undergone a monumental transformation in preparation for re-opening campus this fall. For months, the Fall 2020 Open Working Group—a coronavirus policy-planning task force—has worked to address a multitude of issues that ensure the health and safety of the University and Central New York communities as well as support a positive academic learning environment. First and foremost, all students—new and returning—were tested for COVID-19 and asked to take a Stay Safe Pledge about shared social responsibility. Masks are required everywhere on campus, social distancing is encouraged and washing hands frequently is essential. Across campus, signage offers reminders: “Stay Safe. Stay Healthy. Do Your Part.”
For the first-year students, the new normal is one that saw their senior year of high school activities curtailed and their arrival on campus tempered by the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, the anticipation of beginning their college journeys is apparent. Carrie Grogan Abbott, director of first-year and transfer programs, has worked at the University for 20 years and been involved with orientation activities for 16 of those years. “The students and families are as excited to be here as any year,” she says. “They’re smiling, they’re excited to meet us, and their nerves seem about the same as they usually are.”
As Grogan Abbott points out, every Syracuse Welcome brings new challenges, but the core of activities is relatively similar. “Everything we do takes a lot of collaboration,” she says. “Obviously this year is so different—we did the schedule multiple times and just finalized it recently because we didn’t know what limitations we’d have.” Most of this year’s events were held virtually—with a number of traditions re-envisioned. Convocation was streamed online; many schools and colleges offered online activities and small group gatherings, while student organizations and affinity groups also hosted online greetings. The traditional photo of first-year and transfer students gathered in an image of their class year was replaced with a composite image, with each student providing a picture while holding a Class of 2024 sign.
The members of the ubiquitous Goon Squad —now in its 76th year of helping students with move-in—served as health ambassadors. They safely and enthusiastically greeted arriving students and families, offering information about resources and encouraging safe, healthy behavior. “We’re helping out with whatever we can,” says ambassador Jing Zhao ’23, a School of Architecture student. “I’m new to this, so I’m learning everything I can. I’m enjoying meeting people and, because my major is architecture, I’m curious about how people flow around this place.”
Orientation leaders welcomed students at residence halls and adjusted their traditional activities. For instance, there was Virtual Grocery Bingo and “The Slice Is Right” game show. They also staged the Amazing Race, an in-person scavenger hunt designed to familiarize new students with the campus and its history. With an emphasis on social distancing, small teams of new students were challenged to visit 44 different campus locations in 44 minutes and answer questions about them to win prizes. “There were so many preparations put in place,” says orientation leader David Williams ’22, a policy studies major. “It’s been a really seamless process and a great transition considering the situation we are in with this pandemic. There’s been so much effort to make this the best program and best situation possible for us.”
Perhaps the most notable change was the check-in process: Arriving students and their families lined up in their vehicles at the Welcome Check-in Center in the Skytop Parking Lot and passed through three stations where they were assisted by volunteers. At the first, they verified their pre-arrival negative testing for COVID-19. At the second, they received their ID cards, “Proud To Be Orange” T-shirts, a schedule of Welcome events and a COVID-19 wellness kit that included hand sanitizer, face masks, an oral thermometer, a “no-touch” tool and an information sheet about the virus. At the third station, each student self-administered a COVID-19 test, running a Q-tip around their mouth and placing it in a vile, as part of the University’s screening process using pool saliva testing. “It’s game day, for sure,” says Joe Hernon, director of emergency management and business continuity. “Our goal is to pool saliva for almost all of our students. We need to get the best cross-section of our populations. This is twofold in that we required a test within 10 days of arrival and now we’re testing for what’s happened in the past 10 days. It also establishes a baseline for our students coming in.”
As cars pass through the check-in, Hernon emphasizes the University’s commitment to COVID-19 screening and other health and safety measures. It requires an “abundance of caution,” he says. “The key to our strategy is aggressive testing. It’s almost like a wildfire. We have to hunt for the fire—and the faster we can put out the fire, the slower it spreads. Through this kind of testing model, and by working with our wastewater testing strategy, we can really be aggressive and find the virus.”
Hernon is a member of the Public Health and Emergency Management Subcommittee of the Fall 2020 Open Working Group that developed the University’s robust, comprehensive and science-based strategy to combat COVID-19. Epidemiologist David Larsen, an associate professor of public health at Falk College who heads the subcommittee, says it’s crucial to understand the level of transmission at the community level. For this reason, the proactive strategy incorporates contact tracing, genetic surveillance and wastewater surveillance—which involves sampling wastewater streams from residence halls that would reveal the virus’s presence—as well as isolation quarantine for those who test positive for the coronavirus. Larsen also launched a state-funded pilot program for a wastewater surveillance platform to monitor for the virus in 12 upstate counties. “We’re at risk from global diseases, but you need to understand what’s happening locally to respond appropriately,” he says. “We can monitor wastewater coming out of the dorms and, if we get a positive signal, we’ll know somebody in there has coronavirus, so we can go in and test everybody and see if we can find the virus.”
Along with masks and social distancing, Larsen says New York State’s travel quarantine has helped reduce transmissions in the state, but that’s no guarantee the virus won’t erupt as situations change. With so much uncertainty regarding the virus, he says it’s important that people have accepted the scientific reality of its danger, but they must adjust their behavior to local transmission dynamics—and avoid activities that could produce super-spreader events. For Larsen, this means a “harm-reduction” approach. “There’s a need to be social, but if you can reduce your social contacts in number and frequency and then see what you can do, hopefully that will be enough,” he says.
The University’s system, he says, is being built out to understand transmission levels. “If we have exponential growth sustained for a couple weeks, we’ll know,” he says. “Then we can act accordingly with a local data-driven response.”
As Hernon notes, the University’s plan to reopen and welcome students to campus required a great deal of collaboration, personnel hours and financial investment. “We wanted to make sure we do this right—not only for us, but for our community,” he says. “And our community is more than just our students, it’s the greater Syracuse area. We have to do it right.”