State University of New York Chancellor John King says the higher education system is "cautiously optimistic" about enrollment numbers as the fall semester starts.

"We'll have final numbers in the next few weeks, but we're cautiously optimistic that we'll see increases this year," King said when asked after an event at Niagara County Community College.

Many SUNY classes resumed last week, with the rest starting after Labor Day.

Enrollment has dropped by almost 100,000 students since 2012, something the COVID-19 pandemic only made worse. It was an issue King and Gov. Kathy Hochul said they wanted to address earlier this year.

King pointed to automatic acceptance for 125,000 graduating seniors outside of New York City to their local community college as a way to help enrollment. Lawmakers and the governor agreed to include an additional $178 million for SUNY in the state budget this year to help avoid tuition increases.

With reports of a new COVID-19 variant and rise in cases and hospitalizations over the summer, King said SUNY is monitoring the virus closely with students back for the fall.

"Certainly, folks who are immunocompromised or otherwise suffering with health vulnerabilities should be masking," King said. "We're certainly encouraging people to get the vaccine. There should be an updated booster soon, and we're watching it closely to make sure that we follow the science in terms of keeping our students safe. But it's important the people remember COVID isn't something that's behind us. It's still very much with us, and people have to make thoughtful decisions about their health."

SUNY ended its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for in-person classes in April, but still strongly encourages it for students and staff.