ITHACA, NY -- A lot of things are different this academic year when it comes to COVID-19. With 95% of the on-campus population vaccinated at Cornell University, and a much more infectious variant making the rounds through the campus, city, county and country, decisions are being made using old and new criteria. At this point last year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo said schools must shut down if they had 200 positive cases in two weeks. This year, Cornell has had 304 positive cases just in the week from Aug. 26 to Sept. 1. The positivity rate is sitting 1.14% and there were 52 positive cases on Sept. 1 alone. The school is operating at alert level yellow: moderate risk. But for now, university administration is going to stay the course, continuing with on-campus, in-person learning.
“We’re in a very different position now than we were in the last year, facing decisions that are in many ways even more complex,” university president Martha Pollack said in a letter to the university community.
Indeed, while the vaccines aren’t necessarily providing great protection against contracting the disease, they are providing steadfast protection against severe illness. Pollack said none of the students who have tested positive so far this semester have been seriously ill and none have been hospitalized. This fact has been echoed repeatedly by the county’s public health director Frank Kruppa, who said the vast majority of the vaccinated people who become infected with the disease are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms.
Pollack said students and faculty have “clearly said that they want to return to in-person instruction, and we have been looking forward for many months to a vibrant, fully active fall.” She added that the school will continue its testing program to gather data and monitor active cases and close contacts.
One of the challenges, Pollack said, is the high number of students in quarantine. As of Sept. 3, 34% of quarantine rooms are available, with 122 of 185 rooms occupied. Students in isolation keep up with classes using Zoom rooms and by crowdsourcing notes and recording lectures. Pollack said she envisions three potential outcomes for the semester.
Ideally, Pollack said, the number of infections on campus decreases to the point the school can return to green status, which loosens restrictions on gatherings and other activities. If transmission levels are low enough, testing frequency could also drop. She said the best way to achieve this is through vaccination, masking, keeping activities outdoors and participating in surveillance testing and contact tracing.
The second outcome Pollack envisions is that the semester continues as it’s begun, with higher rates of infection than last year but little to no severe illness, and little to no transmission within the classrooms.
“That will certainly mean significant stress on our community as we manage and support large numbers of students in isolation, but it may be the only way to balance our goal of providing in-person education with keeping the community as healthy as possible,” she said.
The final and worst outcome would be a continued rise in infections to the point that the university no longer has the capacity to support isolation, or to where there is a significant level of transmission in the classroom or other campus settings.
“Should we reach that point, we would need to implement additional restrictions, up to and including having all students quarantine in place and moving all courses online, or even shutting the campus down as we did in March of 2020,” Pollack said.
As of now, the university will stick to the status quo and hope for the best.