Local universities embrace flexibility as another COVID school year approaches

Leaders at area colleges and universities say flexibility remains key as they prepare for the start of the school year after lessons learned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also remain vigilant when it comes to safety — adhering to state and federal rules — and have plans in place to address any changes related to the pandemic that may occur.

Burt Nanna

“Maintaining a healthy and safe learning environment is our highest priority,” says DeAnna R. Burt-Nanna, president of Monroe Community College. “The college will stay flexible and focused on the needs of our students and employees.”

Below is information from local schools on vaccine requirements, in-person/online/hybrid learning and schedule changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they plan to deal with the continued uncertainty around the pandemic and the recent COVID surge.

Monroe Community College

Among the top priorities set for MCC for the upcoming school year is safely and compassionately returning to in-person learning and work, says Burt-Nanna.

“Our fall plan prioritizes safety and has enough flexibility to address individual needs,” she says.

Currently, the fall 2021 semester calendar will be similar to pre-pandemic times as the school tries to resume some semblance of normal life.

The fall semester begins Aug. 26 and runs through Dec. 23, with classes scheduled to resume on campus after Thanksgiving break.

The college encourages student and employees to consider getting vaccinated prior to the start of the fall semester, Burt-Nanna says.

Once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approves one of the vaccines, a COVID-19 vaccination will becomes mandatory for all SUNY students who take in-person classes, she explains.

At that point, the vaccination will be treated like all other student immunization requirements. Unvaccinated students who take in-person classes will be required to verify vaccination or submit a qualified medical or religious exemption.

More than 1,500 students to date have verified that they are vaccinated, Burt-Nanna says.

Students and employees who learn and work in-person and have not verified that they are vaccinated must follow the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, including wearing a mask at all times when on campus and testing weekly, Burt-Nanna says.

MCC continues to respond to changing guidance and student demand in order to safely increase in-person learning and service due to the presence of COVID-19 variants, she says.

Throughout the pandemic, MCC gained greater clarity about the needs of local students, and acted accordingly, Burt-Nanna says.

Within the first months of the pandemic, the school successfully pivoted to online and remote learning, increased support services online for students, bridged the digital divide in partnership with its donors and helped learners stay connected with their peers, faculty and staff.

“Our ability to stay agile is the key to our success,” she says.

Rochester Institute of Technology

“At present, we plan to have as much of an in-person experience as possible for students,” says Wendy Gelbard M.D., associate vice president, wellness, student affairs at RIT.

Courses will mainly be in-person and most spaces will operate at nearly full capacity for on-campus instruction, research, campus programs and services.


“We have mandated all students be vaccinated prior to the semester’s start unless they have been granted an exemption,” she says. “Additionally, face masks will be required indoors for everyone on campus, regardless of vaccination status.”

Gelbard says the past year-plus has been a continuous learning experience, with the school focusing on flexibility, allowing for adjustments as new information and data about COVID-19 became available.

“This allowed us to quickly develop new processes and implement technology, training and support for our faculty and staff to both teach in synchronous and online formats and provide needed services and support to students,” Gelbard says.

In addition, school officials learned that constant and consistent communication — with diverse voices — led to a better understanding and navigation of the evolving pandemic, she says.

Students, faculty, staff and parents were involved in decision-making to ensure all constituencies were heard and represented.

“We will continue researching, learning, and educating the RIT community on necessary actions to create a safer campus,” Gelbard says.

University of Rochester

Students who plan to be on campus for the upcoming academic year need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to UR spokesperson Sara Miller.

All classes/instruction will be in-person.

In addition, UR employees must either be vaccinated, or in the event that they are not, must commit to frequent, regular testing, daily online health screenings and wearing a face mask at all times.

Since the pandemic began, school leaders saw the importance of coordinated communication and COVID-19 protocols that meet the needs of students, faculty, staff, visitors and patients, Miller says.

UR recently implemented a face mask policy for everyone indoors on campus due to the emergence of Delta variant COVID-19 cases in the Rochester area, and in accordance with updated Monroe County and CDC recommendations for wearing face masks indoors, she adds.

“It is intended to be a temporary safety measure until COVID-19 transmission rates have declined sufficiently in Monroe County, and as COVID-19 case numbers remain low at the university,” Miller says.

St. John Fisher College

“We are planning for a fully on-ground experience in the fall semester,” says Gerard Rooney, St. John Fisher College president.

The college has implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all students and employees. Religious and medical exemptions were considered on a case-by-case basis. To date, both student and employee compliance percentage rates are in the high 90s, Rooney says.

The school has also transitioned back to its traditional fall academic calendar, with the first day of classes beginning Sept. 7.

With the exception of its fully online programs, classes will be taught in-person; those that transitioned to online due to the pandemic will return to their in-person format.


Rooney spoke of the lessons learned so far as a result of the pandemic.

“We learned that the ability to pivot quickly and be prepared to shift as needed, all while ensuring a seamless continuity of instruction and a quality academic experience for our students, was crucial,” he says. “I am so proud at how quickly our faculty and staff mobilized to provide solutions and to continue to deliver on our mission for our students.”

Another lesson was the importance of clear, timely and transparent communication, he adds, noting things changed often and quickly.

Moving forward, the college will continue to be guided by two principles: ensuring the health and safety of all members of the campus community, and maximizing the in-person educational experience that students and faculty value.

“The flexibility and commitment of our students and employees to the college over the last 16 months has helped us determine how best to deliver a Fisher education in the varying stages of the pandemic,” Rooney says, adding that being fully vaccinated offers the best chance to withstand any variants. “I am confident that we are especially well-prepared to handle whatever the pandemic may bring.

Nazareth College

Nazareth College’s vaccination approach is aligned with the recommendations of the American College Health Association, which made a statement recognizing that comprehensive COVID-19 vaccination is the most effective way for institutions of higher education to return to a safe, robust, on-campus experience for students, says Nazareth President Elizabeth Paul.

Community-wide vaccination is underway, with Nazareth students, faculty, staff and contracted employees being required to complete COVID-19 vaccination. Limited exemptions have been granted for religious and medical reasons.


Navigating the pandemic bolstered Nazareth’s founding values and exposed the community’s resilience, future focus and ability to embrace change, Paul says.

“We are leaning into the empathy and the care and concern we have for one another,” she says, adding COVID affected everyone, and many are struggling with unforeseen loss and anxiety.

The lessons of last year are many and still unfolding as Nazareth continues to modify plans as required to meet the needs of students, Paul says.

The COVID pandemic continues to evolve, and Nazareth’s plan is to adjust accordingly, Paul says, adding the college’s priorities remain the health and well-being of the community and the fullness of its student learning experience.

“We are approaching this fall full steam ahead, emboldened by what we’ve learned and moving forward with the knowledge that our collective sense of purpose will not be deterred by challenge and that the unexpected will not stop us from forging bravely into the future,” Paul says.

College at Brockport

The College at Brockport is requiring all individuals who choose to live in campus housing and/or participate in athletics to be vaccinated for COVID-19, says John Follaco, director of communications.

A majority of classes will be in-person, with students overwhelmingly in favor of that option, Follaco says, adding that the student body was instrumental in helping the school move forward during the height of the pandemic.

“We’re proud of the way they navigated the pandemic last year,” he says. “We look forward to moving toward a much more traditional college experience this fall, with the return of the in-person events and traditions that we missed a year ago.”

According to Follaco, remaining flexible is vital, adding more is learned about the pandemic each day.

He says it is imperative to monitor campus-level data, regional trends and the latest guidance from local, state and national health officials and make policy adjustments as needed.

Following the CDC’s recommendations for substantial transmission areas, the school began requiring all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, to wear a face covering indoors.

Once one of the COVID-19 vaccines is fully approved by the FDA, SUNY will make the vaccine mandatory for all students, he adds.

Unvaccinated students will have to present a negative COVID-19 test prior to their return this fall. Unvaccinated students, faculty and staff will have to participate in mandatory weekly surveillance testing, Follaco adds.

Roberts Wesleyan College

“We are excited to have the majority of our students back for another year of in-person classes,” says Kristen Brown, interim vice president for student and organizational development at Roberts Wesleyan College.

The school has always had some online and hybrid programs, and those will continue to be offered, she adds.

The school is strongly encouraging all students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID before returning to campus, and it will be providing access to vaccinations at the beginning of the fall semester for students who have not yet been able to get vaccinated, she says.

Last year, leaders at Roberts Wesleyan learned about adaptability, Brown says, adding that the school’s mission to prepare thoughtful, spiritually mature, service-oriented people who will help transform society continued during the pandemic.


“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to engage our students in conversations about health, community life and the responsibilities we have to one another,” Brown says, adding school leaders are proud of how the students responded and adapted to the changes. “They are the reason we were so successful in keeping the virus from spreading on our campus.”

Members of the campus health services, student life team, athletics, academic services and campus operations teams will continue to meet weekly to address changes and to be ready to pivot as needed. The college is also in close contact with local health leaders and follows recommendations to reduce the spread of COVID on campus, Brown says.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Hobart and William Smith Colleges will remain open, with classes in-person for the upcoming school year, the same as last year, says Catherine Williams, vice president of marketing and communications.

HWS will continue many of the precautions taken last year to ensure a healthy and safe community, she adds, noting classrooms still have extra cleaning supplies and air purifiers, and the CDC’s recommendations regarding mask wearing for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are being followed.

“Our end goal is to create a safe, healthy environment,” Williams says.

HWS encourages employees and students to be vaccinated and are holding three vaccination clinics on campus in August and September so that everyone in the community has access to the vaccine.

Transportation for students who wish to be vaccinated off-campus will also be provided.

“While we haven’t mandated a vaccine, we strongly encourage students to educate themselves, and recognize the responsibility they have to maintain their health and promote the health of the community,” Williams says, noting only 1 percent of students have indicated they do not plan to be vaccinated and those who will not be vaccinated have indicated medical or religious reasons.

Over the past year, HWS learned its community members are dedicated to one another and to the schools, from flexible learning options to frequent campus-wide communication.

HWS is in daily contact with the Ontario County Health Department and are following recommendations set forth by the CDC. It will continue to distribute personal protective equipment and educate students on the best practices to keep themselves and one another healthy, she notes.

“We will continue to be flexible, evaluate the needs of our faculty, students and staff, and change course if necessary to be responsive to new information,” Williams says.

SUNY College at Geneseo

SUNY College at Geneseo is preparing for a fully in-person, on-campus academic year, says Monique Patenaude, director of media relations. The school has not adjusted its schedule to eliminate week-long breaks, as it did for spring break earlier this year.

SUNY is requiring all students attending in-person to be vaccinated pending the FDA’s full approval of any COVID-19 vaccine, she notes.

Patenaude says the college has been mindful in recognizing that all members of the community have their own perspective and situation when it comes to the pandemic.

“Remaining focused on data and clearly communicating the reasons for any changes in our policies and practices is important,” she says. “We also benefited from the fact that the entire campus community pulled together as we navigated the uncharted waters of the pandemic.”

Resiliency and communication will be key going forward, she says, adding the college will continue to examine the latest data to assess how or when to elevate its protocols to keep the campus community safe.

Finger Lakes Community College

“We are looking forward to a larger on-campus community this fall with a full athletic schedule and several in-person events,” says Finger Lakes Community College President Robert K. Nye.

Fall 2021 course offerings are 60 percent in-person, 32 percent online asynchronous and 8 percent live remote.

FLCC intends to expand HyFlex offerings with a significant investment in classroom technology and HyFlex training for faculty, he adds.

This fall, the college is offering roughly 55 HyFlex classes in areas from computer science to graphic design to culinary arts. A total of 55 faculty members will have been trained in this modality by the opening of the fall semester.

The FLCC board of trustees voted Aug. 4 to update the college’s immunization policy to require that all students with a presence on campus show proof they have received a COVID-19 vaccine, which is in-line with the SUNY mandate, pending FDA approval.

The college will wait until 30 calendar days after the FDA approves at least one of the vaccines for regular use before administratively withdrawing a student.


Until all students with an on-campus presence are vaccinated, the school will follow proven protocols for protecting the community, such as masking and pooled surveillance testing for those not fully vaccinated, Nye says.

In response to the surge of cases due to the delta variant, FLCC has resumed universal masking.

The school has learned to be creative and flexible and to plan ahead for a number of contingencies as a result of the pandemic.

One professor, for example, demonstrated vineyard techniques to students in real time online by wearing a GoPro camera.

“I am proud of some of the ingenious ways we kept in touch with students during the height of the pandemic,” Nye says.

Andrea Deckert is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Schools, colleges statewide to remain closed until end of academic year

Schools and colleges across New York state will remain closed for the remainder of the academic year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday.

Schools will continue to provide distance learning during that time, Cuomo said, and also will be required to continue meal programs and childcare services for essential workers. The state will make a decision about summer school programming by the end of May.

Cuomo also is directing all schools and colleges to create reopening plans that reimagine school facilities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plans are expected to consider how schools can monitor the spread of the virus; how to reinforce student safety; when and how to resume extracurricular activities; protocols for special student populations; steps to ensure student mental health; alternative academic calendars; and more. All plans will be reviewed by the state before being approved.

The state will partner with the Kate Spade New York Foundation and Crisis Text Line to provide 24/7 emotional support service for frontline health care workers, officials said. And Cuomo said the state Department of Financial Services will require New York state-regulated health insurers to waive cost-sharing, including deductibles, copayments and coinsurance for in-network mental health services for the state’s frontline essential workers during COVID-19.

DFS also will issue an emergency regulation to prohibit insurers from imposing cost-sharing for telehealth and in-person mental health services rendered by in-network providers on an outpatient basis to frontline essential workers eligible to be tested at one of the state’s drive-through or walk-in COVID-19 testing sites. In Monroe County, the drive-through site is at Monroe Community College’s East Henrietta Road campus.

“It’s critical that we protect our students from this virus, and given the current circumstances we are in we do not think it is possible to put the necessary precautions in place that would allow us to reopen schools this academic year,” Cuomo said in a statement. “All schools and colleges will continue to provide distance learning, meal delivery and child care services for the remainder of the school year. And in the meantime, we want schools to start developing a plan to re-open with new protocols that incorporate everything that we are now doing in society and everything that we have learned from this pandemic. This has been a hardship on everyone, but our educators across the state have done a phenomenal job stepping up to make the best of this situation.”

Some 3,942 additional cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed statewide, bringing the total confirmed cases to 308,314. Monroe County accounts for nearly 1,500 of those cases and has had more than 110 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

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In pandemic pause, local colleges adjust and still woo new students

The teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. FLCC and other local schools are adjusting to the new realities as they recruit students and prepare for the next academic year. (File photo supplied by FLCC)
The teaching winery at the FLCC Viticulture and Wine Center in Geneva. FLCC and other local schools are adjusting to the new realities as they recruit students and prepare for the next academic year. (File photo supplied by FLCC)

Normally, April would be the month when high school seniors are making last-minute visits to Rochester-area colleges, trying to decide which school that accepted them they will attend in the fall. Juniors might use their April break to start their college search. 

But not this year. Not with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Schools are instead inviting accepted students to visit their web pages, take virtual campus tours, meet current students and officials on Zoom, and make a decision without setting foot on campus. In fact, chartered buses that normally bring students from the New York City area to visit Nazareth College and Finger Lakes Community College have been canceled, potentially resulting in fewer students from the Big Apple attending those schools in the fall. 

And many colleges are sharing their uncertainty about whether the incoming class will attend classes in person in the fall, as that’s still up in the air depending on the path of the pandemic. Colleges in the State University of New York system are waiting for direction from Albany. 

From community colleges to research universities, local institutions of higher education are juggling student decisions, extra costs of operating remotely, families hesitant to start or complete the college choice process because of their economic uncertainty, and what seems like daily news and changes on the pandemic scene. 

Several local schools, including the region’s largest employer, the University of Rochester, have frozen hiring to some extent, and instituted pay freezes because of the economic impacts of the pandemic. 

After moving spring semester classes online in the middle of the semester, most colleges have also announced summer sessions will be online, too. Schools report they are planning for multiple scenarios for the fall semester.  

The lighted sign on MCC's downtown campus. Like other area colleges and universities, MCC has had to make major adjustments to cope with the pandemic. (photo courtesy of MCC).
The lighted sign on MCC’s downtown campus. Like other area colleges and universities, MCC has had to make major adjustments to cope with the pandemic. (photo courtesy of MCC).

To try to reduce stress for prospective families, some colleges have delayed the traditional May 1 deadline for students to commit to June 1. 

 “Essentially, we want to give families the opportunity to think through their decisions and make sure they’re the best fit for them. In some cases, people need more time to make that decision because of the uncertainty that exists,” said John Mordaci, assistant vice president of admissions at Nazareth College.

The uncertainty may not lay with the college, but with the family’s circumstances. Suddenly without a job, some parents are having to rewrite their children’s financial documents, and are appealing financial aid offers made just a few weeks ago when their income looked very different. Hobart and William Smith Colleges said about 15 percent more financial appeals have been filed this year than in a typical year. 

While Monroe Community College is more affordable than most schools, the college is trying to let students know that even if they apply at the last minute — common with rolling admissions at community colleges — and even if they don’t have internet access at home, college staff are available to help them negotiate the financial aid process. 

Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, MCC’s associate vice president for enrollment management,  said there may be an uptick in enrollment for the fall because of changing financial circumstances for families who didn’t have MCC at the top of their lists until now. 

“Their number one choice is still alive and the pathway to get there is through MCC,” she said, noting MCC students have gone on to Yale and Cornell universities, as well as prestigious state schools.

Some other schools say it’s too early to predict whether their enrollment will differ in the coming year from the previous year. 

“Colleges and universities are a really important part of our economy, particularly here in Rochester, and so we’re all doing the best we can to make sure we reach our enrollment goals,” said Nazareth’s Mordaci. 

Finger Lakes Community College moved all registration for classes online for the first time this spring. “We’re seeing the same volume of activity in our new space,” said Matthew Stever, director of admissions. 

Nazareth enlisted a company to survey prospective students about how their decision-making process might have changed because of the pandemic. 

“What we’ve found is that most students who have already made their decision to attend a certain school are sticking with that decision,” Mordaci said. On the other hand, students who haven’t set foot on a particular school’s campus yet are unlikely to commit to that college.

John Young, vice president and dean of admissions at Hobart and William Smith (HWS), said that school is running about 10 percent ahead in deposits from accepted students, but is lagging in rejections.  He and other counselors agreed that undecided students are taking longer to make a decision. 

Students on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. The pandemic is playing havoc with the admissions timeline for many local colleges. (File photo supplied by Roberts Wesleyan)
Students on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. The pandemic is playing havoc with the admissions timeline for many local colleges. (File photo supplied by Roberts Wesleyan)

April is the month where most schools roll out the red carpet to either welcome those who’ve already committed or to woo those who are still on the fence. Accepted students days can be lavish affairs with catered meals, chances to meet college presidents and deans, tours of dorms and other facilities, meetups with current students and student groups, parent information sessions, swag, and perhaps even a chance to sit in on a class. 

“Without those events, it’s been a bigger challenge this year,” Mordaci said. 

Many schools report taking unusual steps in hopes of a full house in August or September, from calling every accepted student, to creating new virtual campus tours, webinars and special-topic zoom seminars that will help them make up their minds.

We had to pivot pretty quickly,” said HWS’ Young. In some cases, colleges repackaged digital information they already had in an easier-to-find format online. In other cases, they created new features online. HWS created new videos using some of the 125 students still on campus.  

University of Rochester has several videos for prospective students, but one is clearly dated because it includes an interview with a dean who passed away in 2018. Current-day deans, though, are featured in weekly videos made available to the university community in which they read favorite works. 

Rochester Institute of Technology has a virtual tour with the feel of a video game featuring a real student tour guide who comes and goes, something like an avatar. It’s not surprising from a university with state-of-the-art video game design facilities. RIT also announced on Wednesday freezes on hiring and pay, some pay cuts and furloughs, as well as halting construction projects through the summer.

Prospective students at Nazareth College usually meet the college president at accepted students day events. This year they will virtually meet President Daan Braveman, who will step down in June, and incoming President Elizabeth Paul during an online event. 

Even with these online tools, college admission counselors say there’s no substitute for an in-person visit. Many of today’s college applicants have come to expect they’ll visit nearly every college they apply to before they apply, and make second visits after they receive acceptance notifications. 

Young said when he started his career, about 25 percent of students arrived for classes each fall without having visited previously. Now attending the college without a prior visit is rare, except for one group: foreign students. 

So Young invited Gizem Hussain from Pakistan, a member of HWS’s Class of 2021,  to share with accepted students how she settled on a college from abroad.

In her letter to prospective students, Hussain wrote that she searched the college’s website, but also connected with social media accounts and searched out videos that could give her more of a feel for the campus. She checked out course listings to see what classes would be offered in her major. 

“If there is a silver lining to this virtual, rather than in-person, experience, I can promise you that the moment you do step foot on the campus of your choice, you will experience something magical. There is an unmatched, indescribable excitement of physically seeing a world that you had only associated with images and videos on a screen for the first time,” she wrote. 

While MCC is patting itself on the back for being an early adopter of online instruction and processes — it has had paperless registration and course selection for 15 years — others are getting into that game for the very first time. 

This is going to force a lot of schools to do things a lot differently and some of these methods are going to stick,” Stever said.

Other lasting effects of this time might be the economic impact on campus workforces and in families rejiggering their comfort level with having their students go far away from home to attend college. 

Locally, UR, St. John Fisher College, Roberts Wesleyan College have all announced hiring freezes of some sort. SUNY Brockport said it is reviewing every unfilled position to determine whether replacements should be hired at this time. RIT reported it is in meetings on the subject.  

MCC was already reducing staff through a voluntary separation plan before the pandemic hit.

Colleges are also seeing signs similar to the period after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when families’ decided to send students to college closer to home rather than risk being separated by many miles during uncertain times. 

“Last year our freshman class came from 29 states,” Mordaci said at Nazareth. “We don’t expect that will be the same this year, based on the circumstances. We had to cancel a bus trip we normally do from NYC.  We feel that’s going to impact us.”

“Families might not be as willing to go as far” once again, Stever said. 

But as with all things pandemic, predictions can be mercurial. 

Stever said FLCC’s reach has expanded because more information is online now, making it more accessible now to non-traditional age prospective students who may want to retool. 

HWS saw increased enrollment after 911 from urban areas.

I wonder if we might see the same things here,” Young said. “It’s much easier to pay attention to social distancing on a campus like ours.  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.”

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