Overview of positive case notification protocol and response to community feedback

The following message was sent to students, faculty and staff on Aug. 27.

Dear Members of the Campus Community:

Many of you are aware that today the College reported its first positive COVID-19 case in our campus community this fall. The student who tested positive and their residence hall roommate are currently in quarantine and are being monitored by our Student Health Service.

The report on this positive test result was shared with all students and employees via the Daily Digest e-newsletter, in accordance with the positive case notification protocol that was developed for fall 2020 and that has been communicated frequently to campus community members.

Following our report, we have received feedback from the campus community about our notification protocol, including questions about why we did not use other communication tools, like text messaging, to let our community know about this positive test.

We are grateful for this feedback and wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to remind our community about our fall 2020 positive case notification protocol. We encourage all members of our community to review the following information carefully for clarification about what to expect this semester.

Things to Know About Our COVID-19 Positive Case Communication Protocol:

  • The Daily Digest will remain the primary channel for reporting new positive cases of COVID-19 to our campus community. A daily (M-F) “Coronavirus Update” will be included (as it has since the Digest launched in March) in every issue of the Daily Digest, whether or not there is a new positive case to report.
  • Positive cases will be reported to all students, faculty and staff via the Daily Digest only when they affect our in-person community. This means that we will only include cases in the daily report when the student or employee who tested positive has been on campus during the previous 14 days.
  • The College will not send emergency text alerts via NPAlert or NPForward about positive cases, unless there is an immediate threat to the health and safety of students or employees, in accordance with Clery Act
  • When the College learns of a student’s positive test, all of the faculty teaching courses in which the student is enrolled will be notified, whether those courses are in-person, remote or hybrid.
  • When the College learns of an employee’s positive test, their immediate supervisor will be notified.
  • Contact tracers will interview students and employees who test positive and will notify other individuals of possible exposure as warranted, per our testing and quarantine protocol.
  • Those who are directly affected by a positive case will receive immediate outreach and guidance from contact tracers. Others who are wearing masks, washing hands and practicing social distancing should not need to change their behavior based on this news.
    • For example, students and instructors who share in-person courses with those who test positive (again, if any) will be notifiedbut will not be required to quarantine unless contact tracers confirm that they have been in close contact with the student (10 minutes or more within six feet) without wearing a mask.
  • The Student Health Service will notify state and local health departments of any positive cases within our community as required by state regulations.
  • The Office of Communication & Marketing will update our new Coronavirus Dashboard with information about new and active cases (read more about this Dashboard below).

For those who are interested in learning more about this communication protocol, we provide the following context and explanations for how and why the College’s COVID-19 response team developed this approach, and what other communication tools will be deployed to keep our community informed during an unprecedented fall 2020 semester.

How Our Positive Case Reporting Has Evolved

The College’s initial process for reporting positive COVID-19 cases in spring 2020 was to send urgent emails and text messages via NPAlert, our emergency notification system.

Over time, as we collectively adjusted to the new reality of life in a time of pandemic, we heard from our community that these constant notifications, often sent outside of normal business hours, were becoming distressing and disruptive for some recipients.

On April 10, we announced a new approach: The College would continue providing daily updates about COVID-19 cases, but would send these out just once per day, at 10 a.m., in the Daily Digest e-newsletter. We resolved to send urgent, NPAlert text notifications only when contact tracing indicated that specific individuals may have been exposed on-campus to a person with a confirmed or physician-diagnosed positive case of COVID-19.

This practice continued through the summer, and with most students and employees away from campus, we reported no new positive cases from May 12 – Aug. 25.

The College’s fall 2020 reopening plan, approved this summer by SUNY and the State of New York, articulated a positive case communication protocol that strikes a balance between providing needed information to our community, and protecting the privacy of individuals who test positive for COVID-19.

The shift in how we communicate is also a reflection of how much better we understand prevention and community spread and we have implemented a range of best practices and protocols provided by medical and health experts.

We summarized the fall 2020 protocol in a message published on Aug. 25 and delivered to all students, faculty and staff via the Daily Digest newsletter on Aug. 26.

NPForward Text Notification System

Prior to the first week of classes, the Office of Communication & Marketing launched a new text notification system, NPForward, as a tool for delivering helpful information to students and employees, especially regarding new policies and resources related to the unique campus environment this fall.

We made the decision not to use the NPForward text notification system to provide community updates about positive test results. In part, this decision was informed by our experience this spring, when we received feedback that text alerts about positive tests were disruptive and distressing.

The College is continuing to use NPAlert as an emergency text service. In the event that a confirmed, positive case of COVID-19 poses an immediate threat to the campus community (as defined by the Clery Act – see below), we will send an NPAlert text notification to all students and employees.

Clery Act Obligations

Since the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the U.S. Department of Education has required that colleges issue emergency notifications “upon confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation occurring on the campus that involves an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees.”

The College has received guidance from SUNY and the Department of Education that this statute does not require institutions to proactively identify positive COVID-19 cases within the campus community.

The relevant recommendation from SUNY reads as follows:

Campuses should continue their calm, straightforward notifications of students and employees with general information on the state of the virus and actions students and employees can take to lower their risk of contracting the virus.”

Our process of informing campus in a calm, clear and direct way about positive COVID-19 cases in a daily newsletter sent to all students, faculty and staff complies with Clery Act and SUNY guidance on this issue.

Coronavirus Dashboard

This week the College launched a new Dashboard to provide real-time updates on positive cases that could pose a risk to the on-campus community. The dashboard includes a tally of “active cases,” defined as confirmed positive COVID-19 tests among individuals who have been on campus and may have exposed others. The Dashboard is a work in progress and we have been researching other university dashboards for best practices we can apply to our Dashboard.

As mandatory student testing begins on campus next week, the College will be able to share more data about testing, tracing and positive cases via this new Dashboard.

We understand that the news of the first new positive case on campus since spring is disturbing for our community, particularly in the context of an ongoing pandemic, continuing racial tension and violence against communities and individuals of color, a back-to-school season creating new challenges for parents, and a campus environment demanding students and employees adapt to new ways of doing their work.

We have taken great care at every step to develop a communication process that is transparent, empathetic, inclusive of community feedback and sensitive to individual privacy concerns. We welcome feedback at communication@newpaltz.edu from all students, employees, alumni and other stakeholders.

Everyone on the Communication & Marketing team aspires to continue learning and improving our work in a spirit of service and kindness to our colleagues and students. We thank our community for continuing to support us in that endeavor.


Shelly Wright
Chief of Staff and Vice President for Communication