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SUNY Schenectady hosted an informative Virtual Business Roundtable on May 28 with the heads of local businesses, nonprofit organizations, the College, and elected officials describing the challenges their respective groups have faced since New York State on PAUSE began in March. They shared how the pandemic has affected their customers, clients, students, and constituents, the actions they have taken during this crisis, and ways in which the community can come back stronger. The discussion was moderated by Megan Baker, President and CEO of Baker Public Relations.

Panelists were:
Dr. Steady Moono, President, SUNY Schenectady
Rayn Boncie, Founder and Vice-President, Things of My Very Own, Inc.
Antonio Civitella, President and CEO, Transfinder
Mark Eagan, President and CEO, Capital Region Chamber
Mona Golub, Vice President of Public Relations and Community Service, Price Chopper/Market 32
Andy Guelcher, Dealer Principal and General Manager, Mohawk Chevrolet & Mohawk Honda
Catherine Hover, Founder, Palette
Honorable Anthony Jasenski Sr., Chair, Schenectady County Legislature
Honorable Gary McCarthy, Mayor, City of Schenectady
James P. McPartlon, President, Mohawk Ambulance Service
Jamaica Miles, Community Activist
James Salengo, Executive Director, Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corp. (DSIC)
Kim Siciliano, Executive Director, YWCA NorthEastern NY

Dr. Moono noted that although we are still facing uncertainty, the time was right to bring together key leaders in the community to share the various steps they have taken in response to the pandemic and their insights about the way forward.

“We are all being tested now like we have never been tested before,” Dr. Moono stated. “Inviting leaders from various sectors of our community together virtually to have this conversation was beneficial for all of us. Through the roundtable we were all able to learn from one another about strategies that are working, areas where we can improve, and thoughts on the path forward.”

Dr. Moono told the panelists and the nearly 125 community members tuning into the roundtable via Zoom and a live stream on SUNY Schenectady’s Facebook page, how the College shifted to virtual learning in mid-March with online classes continuing through the summer. “We were able to quickly pivot to remote learning, purchasing laptops for student use and providing students with technological support, but there were still challenges with a completely online end to our spring semester,” he explained. “We needed to navigate how to virtually provide our students with the resources they are accustomed to on campus from advising and mentoring to wellness and counseling, all services that we continue to offer during the summer as classes began this week.” In terms of the fall semester, Dr. Moono noted that, similar to colleges and universities across the country, SUNY Schenectady is developing plans for options as to what Fall 2020 will look like for students and faculty.

Just as Dr. Moono and College administrators are focusing on the upcoming semester, others on the panel described what the immediate future holds for their organizations. For example, the Early Learning Center on the main campus of the YWCA NorthEastern NY will have a soft reopening on June 1, serving its essential employees and those parents they have contacted who are in need of child care. Kim Siciliano, executive director, described this first step into reopening and new safety protocols that have been put into place. “About 15 to 20 kids are coming on Monday,” she explained. “The Schenectady Foundation funded portable handwashing stations so they can wash their hands before they come into the center. We have ordered every kid a pair of shoes so that they get their own shoes when they come in, their shoes go in the cubby. We are making sure we have enough masks for teachers and accessing all of the resources that we need for that.”

She added that protocols are taking place at the YWCA’s other locations as well. “We have all of our staff transitioning back to on-site…We have three buildings on our main campus; then we have offices at the police department, at family court, at CPS, and we want to make sure that all of those locations where we have staff are safe and following all protocols.”

As city officials receive guidance from the Governor and New York State regarding reopening, Mayor Gary McCarthy said that it is key for residents to continue to take safety measures as Phase One takes shape. “We want to create a level of confidence within the community that people can go out and shop and return to some level of normalcy, but at the same time everybody has to practice some of the basic things that we’ve learned in this: wash your hands, wear a face mask, use social distancing to minimize your chances of getting the virus…allowing us to go back to this new normal.”

He added that city officials are open to working with business owners, as well as members of the public. “We’re looking to work with businesses. I’ve suspended the parking fees downtown. We are looking to allow more flexibility with restaurants as they open up in the later phases to use outdoor seating. We are more than open to any suggestions or if people have a question or problem, feel free to call city staff, or the County Department of Health which has been very good about guiding people about what the new protocols are to minimize the chance of picking up this virus.”

As we embark on reopening phases through New York Forward, there is time for reflection on those who have been most deeply hurt by the pandemic, including individuals who were already facing financial challenges before the pandemic hit. Jamaica Miles, community activist, described how they have been affected. “What we’re seeing is that systems and structures that were already causing harm to people in our communities, that harm is now worse,” she said. “We know that the levels of poverty that existed were just unimaginable, people already were struggling, and were one, two, three paychecks away from either being homeless or not being able to provide for themselves in some type of way; those people now are homeless, are facing eviction.”

She added that her hope for the future was that there are lessons learned from this crisis. “I hope that we find a way to no longer go back to the way things were before, but go forward in a way that offers everyone the opportunity to thrive and to no longer struggle to survive.”