In late August, less than a week after classes started, the State University of New York at Oneonta suspended five students who, officials said, had organized parties in the upstate town that might have led to a coronavirus outbreak on campus.
But it was already too late.
Five days later, the outbreak was out of control, with nearly 400 virus cases among a campus student population that is usually around 6,000.
As a result, officials announced on Thursday that they were canceling in-person classes for the fall semester and sending students home, making Oneonta the first SUNY campus to shut down because of the virus after trying to reopen for classes.
“Despite the diligence of the vast majority of our SUNY Oneonta students, faculty and staff, the actions of a few individuals who didn’t comply resulted in the spread of Covid-19 over the past week,” Jim Malatras, SUNY’s chancellor, said in a statement.
With New York City public schools set to reopen at the end of the month, the closing of the campus was a troubling reminder of how quickly virus clusters can spiral in an academic setting, even in a state where the infection rate has hovered around 1 percent for weeks.
The college, in Otsego County, about 80 miles west of Albany, said that classes would be canceled on Friday to allow students to prepare to go home. More than 50 students who were suspected of having the virus were in quarantine on campus and 100 who had tested positive were in isolation, according to daily data the college has posted online.
The outbreak started small. On Aug. 25, the second day of classes, university officials said two students had tested positive for the virus. By Aug. 28, the number had ballooned to 29.
Two days later, after 105 students — or about 3 percent of the people who were on campus or using campus facilities by then — had tested positive, Mr. Malatras directed the school to cancel all in-student activities for two weeks. He also said that in addition to suspending the five students, officials had also suspended three campus organizations.
On Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said the state was sending a virus-control team consisting of 71 contact tracers and eight case investigators to try to quell the outbreak before it spread to the town. The state also opened three free, rapid testing sites in the city of Oneonta.
But the efforts did not apparently stem the campus outbreak. By Wednesday, officials said that 289 cases had been confirmed after more than 2,500 students and more than 200 employees had been tested. Another 100 people tested positive by Thursday.
“This is a sad day for SUNY Oneonta,” said Dr. Barbara Jean Morris, the college’s president. “However, the actions we are taking will allow us to put our focus back on learning.”
Before classes began, the college had not required students to show that they had tested negative for the virus before being allowed on campus, as many colleges around the United States have done. Students also were not tested upon arriving for the semester.
Shortly after classes started, students began posting videos on social media chronicling the rising number of infections and criticizing what they said was a lack of communication about the outbreak from the college.
After the college began testing students, faculty members and other employees en masse, some students who tested positive filmed themselves being woken up in the early hours of the morning and rushed into vans by men in white hazmat suits who took them to campus locations where they were to quarantine.
Haley Dimonda, a first-year student, said she had gotten a call shortly before 1 a.m. Monday informing her that she had tested positive for the virus and would have to pack her things to quarantine in a different dormitory.
About five minutes later, Ms. Dimonda said, a resident assistant knocked on her door and told her that a man was waiting for her. Ms. Dimonda, 18, filmed herself, teary-eyed, following a man in a hazmat suit. She was still in her pajamas when she was escorted out of her dorm room carrying some of her belongings.
“I was really scared actually, because I hadn’t gotten any information,” she said. “I was just told I was going get picked up and go to a hall.”
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Ms. Dimonda, who does not have symptoms of the virus, was tested shortly after the college made it mandatory for students living on campus to be tested after the outbreak began.
While she said she had heard of parties being held near campus after students arrived, she also believed the college should have required students to be tested beforehand. The large number of cases, she said, was “inevitable.”
“With the parties or without the parties, this would’ve happened anyway, but people partying spread it quicker,” Ms. Dimonda said.
Although SUNY Oneonta’s recent policy does not allow students to leave for home without the approval of the county health department, Ms. Dimonda said that her parents were able to pick her up on Monday, the day she was put in quarantine. She said she was now “stuck in my room” on Long Island.
Otsego County has had some of the lowest positive test rates in the state. By Thursday, the overall positive rate of those who had tested in the county was .01 (209 positives out of 20,221 tested), according to state data. On Thursday, the state reported 20 new cases in the county.
Lizabeth Rose, who manages Peter Clark Student Rentals, a local off-campus housing company that rents to around 400 students, said that only the occupants of one of her houses had to quarantine, easing some of her own concerns about those who will be remaining in town. (Students can apply for permission to stay on campus.)
“I think most of the students are doing the right thing,” Ms. Rose said.
SUNY Oneonta is not the only university struggling to control cases and quarantine students while trying to conduct in-person classes.
On Thursday, officials at Syracuse University, about 85 miles northwest of Oneonta, said they had detected traces of the virus in wastewater coming from one dorm. Officials ordered students in the dorm to return to their rooms and said all residents there would be tested.
Several colleges and universities, including Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had previously canceled in-person classes after hundreds of students were found to have the virus, often following reports of large parties.
More than 40 students at SUNY, Plattsburgh, which is about 160 miles north of Albany, were placed on interim suspension after an outdoor gathering. Small liberal arts colleges like Marist College and larger universities like the Ohio State University have ordered students off campus because of parties. More than 1,000 cases have been detected at the both the University of South Carolina and the University of Alabama