Movers carry boxes into an Ithaca apartment building.

Collegetown is beginning to make its natural, yearly evolution from summer-time ghost-town to bustling economic center, taking place each year around early August when Cornell University students lug handfuls of suitcases, bags and more up flights of stairs to their often cramped apartments. 

Inevitably, though, this year is different. Normally the students are seen as a necessary nuisance for locals—the life-blood of the local economy and a significant boon after months of quiet, but coming with some ancillary issues like a Solo cup in the front yard or loud music late at night—but the stakes are incalculably higher this year as the coronavirus pandemic continues and Cornell plans its first in-person classes since closing its campus in mid-March. That’s obvious by the new rules the school installed for move-in weekend, which dictate that students should be tested before they get to their rooms, luggage and move-in assistance should be limited and those coming from one of the 35 states on New York’s travel advisory list must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival (quarantine housing is no longer guaranteed by Cornell, a recent decision that also ruffled plenty of feathers around the area). 

Cornell’s plan and its insistence on moving forward with it have come under intense scrutiny over the last several weeks. Though the plan was met, mostly, with initial praise and optimism, a recent spate in positive cases during July in Tompkins County as well as waves in states elsewhere in the country have made community members increasingly apprehensive about the plan to bring students back. 

Indeed, by the time this article is published things could have changed, as the situation remains very fluid among prominent Tompkins County education entities: Ithaca College and Ithaca City School District have both reneged on their plans for in-person learning in the past 24 hours. IC announced that it would be canceling all in-person classes and “not welcoming all students back to campus this fall as we’d hoped,” wrote IC president Shirley Collado in an email to staff. Meanwhile, the Ithaca City School District Board of Education is expected to vote this week to push back the start of in-person classes to October, meaning students would start the year by learning remotely online. Staff will come to school buildings the week prior to in-person classes starting for professional development and training, and sources have said the district also wants to monitor how Cornell’s reopening process goes and improve its HVAC system before bringing teachers, staff and students all into the classrooms. 

Upon hearing of Ithaca College’s decision mid-day Tuesday, Cornell University released the following statement from spokesperson John Carberry: “We respect the decision made by Ithaca College. Every college and university’s situation is different and they need to be able to make their own fact-based assessments. We remain committed to our science-based approach to a hybrid semester, with its aggressive surveillance testing protocol, as the best way to promote the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students and the greater Ithaca community.”

New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton has been in a back-and-forth discussion with Cornell, trying to get clarity on several questions that she said are being sent to her office from constituents about the school’s plan. One of those questions is the threshold at which Cornell University would adjust its plan and either send students home, change to online classes, or some smaller tweak to protocol. Presumably, this would be higher than the 1,200 positive cases that the school has already said it expects over the semester among the Cornell community—which they have steadfastly argued is safer than the alternative of students arriving back in Ithaca but not having regularly scheduled monitoring on campus or surveillance testing. 

“We will be monitoring testing results daily to help us to determine whether and when to

escalate or de-escalate our planning protocols,” the school wrote back, saying any decision would be made in conjunction with the Tompkins County Health Department, Cayuga Health System and the New York State Department of Health. “We are planning to publicly share (via our COVID website) a dashboard with key data. While the specific data to be contained in the public dashboard have not yet been finalized, it will almost certainly contain the overall results of our surveillance testing (number of tests performed, number of positive tests sent for diagnostic testing to Cayuga Health System), as well as a simple metric to indicate alert levels (we are considering a color coded alert scheme) that would summarize the comprehensive data that we will be tracking on a daily basis.”

All three higher education institutions will be holding a town hall-style meeting Tuesday night to field concerns from the community and more questions are sure to come up during that event (see for a full story once the town hall is completed). 

Late summer has also seen several petitions emerge, circulating online among Ithacans and others around Tompkins County, calling on Cornell to reverse its decision to hold in-person classes and to, one way or another, send students home in the interest of protecting the surrounding community. It’s a somewhat unfamiliar tone for locals to strike, as the lucrative benefits the students bring normally far outweighs the grumbling that residents do over their behavior. One turning point has seemed to be the announcement of Cornell’s decision that it could not guarantee quarantine housing for students anymore—that provoked a strongly-worded letter from the Tompkins County Legislature, which didn’t specifically mention Cornell but didn’t necessarily have to in order to make its point. 

“As representatives of our entire County, we expect that all community partners will be transparent as their plans evolve, and that those plans continue to mark the health and safety of all community members as their number one priority,” the letter stated. “Every institution has an obligation to build and maintain trust in their community, and members of the public have the right to know that they are not being put in harm’s way.”

Tompkins County residents aren’t the only ones feeling some hesitation to the students coming back. Even some Cornellians have been vocal about their fears. One person, who wanted to remain anonymous, works as an RA on campus and moved in during the past week. They said that although they were excited to come back to school, they acknowledged that so far the situation on campus has felt “pretty unsafe.”

“Cornell communicated their stance on why they think it's safer to bring students back, reiterating the fact that with their rigorous testing program, they will be able to control infections,” the student said. “They seem to know what they're talking about and seem confident that it will work out. However, since I've moved in and started RA training, I want to go back home.”

Since arriving, the student said they have become scared the school isn’t prepared for the influx of students that will be moving to campus over the next several weeks, and that they feel the school has been fairly vague about how they plan to safely conduct classes and life on campus. Even with a wealth of information released, the student said they don’t feel the school has been transparent enough.  The experience has convinced them that Cornell should “100 percent” cancel the reopening strategy and keep students off-campus, even as the move-in process is in full swing. 

“Students will break the rules,” they said. “As residential staff, we are worried about our own safety and we have not been given information on a lot of things so we feel kind of in the dark.  [...] If I were not an RA, I would've canceled my housing contract and urged all of my friends to do the same. If anyone is unsure about coming back, take my advice and spend this semester at home.” 

They are not the only one, either. The Cornell Graduate Student Union has been very vocal over the last several months about their opposition to the reopening plans and their requests for more transparency from the school. All that being said, Cornell continues to press ahead with its plan, at least for now. 

“We must expect the national landscape around the virus to continue to change,” the school wrote in its answers to Lifton. “We will remain vigilant, and it is likely that our approach will also continue to evolve as the situation warrants.”

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