COLONIE — On Siena College’s socially distanced campus on Wednesday, masked students quietly padded in sweatshirts and Birkenstocks to assigned seats under a large white tent — their outdoor classroom.
Others sat at tables in the student center with laptops and headphones, studying or logging into virtual courses.
But some students say they are on edge after Siena College officials took sweeping disciplinary action following a Derby Day gathering that students say got out of control. And a recent email from campus safety to Siena students requesting photos of the weekend bash has some nervous that they could be next.
“There are kids taking pictures of you if you’re congregating outside from their door rooms to send to the dean,” one student wrote to the Times Union. “It is a paranoia going on here.”
Several students told the Times Union that they have reported infractions of Siena’s COVID-19 protocols, noting that most people had no trouble obeying the rules.
“The rules aren’t that difficult,” freshman Lilly Kronau, of Poestenkill, said. “That upsets me. I don’t know why they wouldn’t have the decency and care to make sure that we can all stay on campus.”
Roughly 20 students at Siena College were “temporarily dismissed” from campus housing last week after school officials caught wind of the Sept. 5 event celebrating the Kentucky Derby horse race, which students say drew a crowd of 80 to 100.
Students, stunned by the crackdown, told the Times Union that they saw peace officers walking around the event and chatting with students.
Attendees of the party were cited for violations like failing to wear their masks, holding an impromptu gathering, and drinking alcohol outside. Administrators say investigations are ongoing.
At least five other students were sent home for holding gatherings in their dorm rooms since the beginning of the semester, school officials confirmed.
“We want all of our students – every single one of them – to be successful and happy,” Siena President Chris Gibson said in an interview. “And that’s how we are operating here to have a very safe and effective conveyance of the academic program. It’s clearly challenging under these circumstances, but we are doing our best.”
He emphasized that the dismissals were temporary and that most students would return when the investigation was complete.
“We want everyone here to flourish on our campus and even anyone who might be part of the disciplinary process, we look forward to welcoming them back once this rehabilitation period is over,” Gibson said.
Students on the tight-knit campus – 2,200 of 3,000 Siena students have elected to live in the dorms this year – had mixed feelings about the crackdown but many were glad to see administration was taking action.
“I have seen many people be sent home because they brought someone from the outside in,” Angelee Carino, a freshman from the Bronx, said. “The fact that Siena is taking that precaution, it does make me feel safer.”
Students are discouraged from leaving the sprawling campus and they must wear masks every time they leave their rooms. They signed a pledge before arriving on campus, but admit that the rules can sometimes feel arbitrary.
Meredith Buono, a freshman from Valatie, noticed that resident assistants walked around the dorms telling students to put masks on when they have guests over, even if they were seated six feet apart. During meals, she and her friends can eat together without masks.
“You’d think if you are in an open space with nobody around you, you can have your mask off outside, but they really don’t want you to do that either, so it’s been really restricting,” Buono said. “I think some people are starting to get over it and not wearing their masks because they are tired of it.”
Making friends under pandemic conditions is a challenge, so the college has organized virtual events for first-year students.
“It’s more limited, there are fewer people gathering, but I have made a lot of friends, even though we are in a pandemic,” said Miykael Locke, a chemistry major from Schenectady.
So far, Siena College has seen few COVID-19 cases, with its third since the start of the semester reported on Wednesday.
That’s in contrast to other colleges and universities, like University at Albany, which have seen a recent surge in infections. Schools in the SUNY system risk having students locked down or sent home for the semester if they surpass the state’s threshold.
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In addition to closely monitoring student behavior, the college has ramped up its testing protocol. Officials strongly recommended students get COVID-19 tests before arriving on campus, but only 20 percent of students complied, according to Siena officials.
Siena College researchers have also been studying wastewater as a form of surveillance testing. On Tuesday, the college announced that it found traces – though an unquantifiable amount – of the RNA associated with the coronavirus in the water. They are zeroing in on specific buildings to see if the infection came from the campus community or an outside source.
“When we get a reading like this, which is close to the instrument – which means it’s possible we have an infection … we are dialing in and actually going to floors,” Gibson said.
The college has also partnered with an outside lab to conduct random nasal swab tests on 2 percent of the campus population each week.
While the disciplinary measures may seem harsh to students, Gibson emphasized that the vast majority were following the rules and doing their part to keep the campus safe.
“The administration is just trying to follow the evidence and get it right,” Gibson said.