Livingston County News file photo

SUNY Geneseo deactivated a handful of Facebook groups it administered in mid August after posts about an online petition criticizing the college’s mandatory COVID-19 testing policy elicited strong reactions from students.

The college previously administered the “Class of” Facebook groups as a means of sharing relevant college information with members of a specific graduating class.

But in early August, before students started returning to campus, posts about a petition criticizing the college’s testing policy, which required most students to obtain a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus, started popping up in the discussion sections of the groups.

The petition, created by senior Dana Sorrentino Aug. 6, characterized the policy as an unnecessary and unjust college overreach.

“This petition is for student rights,” Sorrentino wrote in the petition description. “I do not consent to taking the COVID-19 test. There have been many false positives and why expose ourselves to the virus at testing centers?”

At its height, the petition had garnered more than 75 signatures, though it can no longer be seen on the college’s petitions page, Geneseo Speaks.

Posts about the petition on the “Class of” Facebook pages drew mostly criticism in the posts’ comments sections.

“There have been multiple cases in which one asymptotic carrier can spread the virus to so, so many more,” wrote senior Maggie Hall on the Class of 2021 Facebook page before it was deactivated. “We go to school with immunocompromised peers as well as individuals who are high risk. The price to return to an incredibly privileged school environment is a Q-tip going in your nose. The temporary ‘pain’ of that is not oppression, nor is an infringement on your rights.”

Heidi Granville, also a senior, commented that she knew someone who’d become infected with the virus from an asymptomatic carrier and that getting tested before coming back to campus was, at worst, a minor inconvenience.

“If we can play a small role in wearing a mask and taking a test to look out for one classmate, one friend, one neighbor, one professor… why wouldn’t we do it?” Granville wrote. “That seems like showing respect and consideration by looking out for others.”

During an interview with the County News last month, Sorrentino said things got the most heated on the Class of 2021 Facebook page.

“It honestly went too far,” she said. “It twas nothing about COVID at one point. It was simply about attacking each other, calling them names and back and forth.”

Sorrentino wasn’t surprised the college decided to deactivate the groups because “they can’t take controversy.”

“They post all this stuff on liberal views which is totally fine, I’m very pro-free speech to an extent,” she said, “but the fact that I post one petition and the whole chat gets shut down is pretty ridiculous.”

Instead of deactivating the Facebook groups, Sorrentino questioned why group administrators didn’t simply step in and take control of the vitriolic comments.

“The administrator should have honestly wrote a message in the chat and said ‘Hey guys, if you like the petition, sign it. If you don’t, don’t sign it, but I’d rather have this be more of a debate than attacking one another,’” Sorrentino said. “I feel like they easily could have stepped in, in that sense.”

Monique Patenaude, the college’s director of media relations, said the “Class of” Facebook pages were deactivated for a number of reasons.

“Increasingly, the administrators for the groups did not have the time to adequately monitor and moderate the pages, for which the need has increased exponentially in recent months,” she said. “Unfortunately, the pages were not set up in a manner that ensured membership remained exclusive to SUNY Geneseo students, or a given class year. As a result, the Facebook groups ceased to serve their original purpose of providing class members with a sense of community and as a means to bond with other students, as the groups became populated with members from outside of SUNY Geneseo’s student body.”

Administrators had received a number of complaints in recent months from group members complaining about “episodes of incivility,” Patenaude said.

The administrators of the Facebook groups made the decision to deactivate them, said Patenaude. Their deactivation did not follow any vote, formal or otherwise, of the SUNY Geneseo cabinet.

Before they were deactivated, the college reached out to SUNY’s legal counsel to confirm it was within the college’s legal rights to deactivate the groups, Patenaude said.

Some students criticized the deactivations and said the Facebook groups were helpful tools when looking for sublets, learning about upcoming events, connecting with other members of their class, getting the word out about student clubs and trying to sell textbooks.

Granville said she met her freshman suitemates through her “Class of” Facebook group.

“I would say it served as the main platform for students to connect, so I’m bummed it’s down,” she said.

Mary-Margaret Dwyer, a senior slated to graduate in December, called the college’s actions “extremely unfair” and said they came without warning.

“While they might have had other reasons behind their decision other than not seeing a purpose for the groups, I felt that there was a blatant disregard for students,” said Dwyer. “...I know that these types of decisions are hard to make. I was on Student Association, so I know how it feels to have an entire student body analyzing an organization’s every move. But it truly comes down to the lack of transparency and communication that has been a consistent issue between students and administration over the past year. This just adds to the list.”

After the college deleted its Class of 2021 Facebook group, Dwyer created her own, which is now up to nearly 230 members.

“I created a new group... because I understand the need for these outlets that act as a central hub for a variety of student information. Campus emails are frustrating and rarely opened, so clubs and organizations regularly turn to these Facebook groups to reach a larger audience,” Dwyer said. “And I feel like these Facebook pages shouldn’t be regulated by school officials, why can’t we be trusted to run our own groups? We’re young adults, we live on our own, we study on our own, college is supposed to be an independent environment. Let us run our own social media.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1